Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.03

Clifford Angel Bates, Jr., Aristotle's "Best Regime". Kingship, Democracy, and the Rule of Law.   Baton Rouge:  The Louisiana State University Press, 2003.  Pp. 234.  ISBN 0-8071-2830-9.  $65.00.  

Reviewed by John Lewis, History and Political Science, Ashland University (
Word count: 2980 words

Scholars since Thomas Aquinas have generally found Aristotle's best constitution to be either a mixed politeia (a polity) or an aristocracy. There have been dissenters, notably Thomas Hobbes, but most others agree that Aristotle saw democracy as a deviant form that enshrines the base and leads to tyranny. This volume in the Political Traditions in Foreign Policy Series takes issue with this tradition. Its commentary on selections from Politics Book 3 is a sustained argument for Aristotle's best regime as a democracy restrained by laws. Such a regime, according to the author, represents for Aristotle the twin peaks of rational political life: citizen self-rule, and the rule of law. This edited PhD dissertation is engaging, and written with clarity, energy, and a drive towards a purpose. To read it has been provocative and rewarding. Criticisms should be taken simply as responses to its arguments, and evidence of its value. It is a book that students of the Politics must read and digest.

Aristotle's 'Best Regime' is clearly organized. The Introduction promises a defense of the many based on virtue, and a defense of the rule of law through an examination of "universal kingship." The book has three parts. The first comprises three essentially polemical chapters: "The City," "The Citizen," and "The Regime." They de-emphasize the importance of books 1, 2, and sections 3.1-5 to political study. The second part, "The First Peak: Popular Rule," turns to the heart of politics, the concept of the "regime." There are four chapters here, concerned with aristocracy, "polity," the excellence of the many, and Nicomachean Ethics 8.10 on democracy. These chapters argue that Aristotle saw the many as virtuous and that scholars have been misled in attempts to find a "best regime" in non-democratic forms. The third part turns to "The Second Peak: The Three Logoi of Pambasileia," with one chapter on kingship and three each dealing with a "dialog" that Bates finds in the text. They espouse a defense of the rule of law over rule by the best men and of the law as a necessary restraint in Aristotle's best regime.

The author's aim, to show Aristotle's best regime as a democracy limited by law, requires a certain method of reading the Politics. Bates' view is that this is a text that uses rhetorical techniques for pedagogical purposes. We need to recognize its dialogic nature: there is interplay between the genres of treatise and dialogue, between third-person explication and several logoi that appear to be debates. These debates do not simply offer truths to us; they often step into blind alleys and dead-ends that show us where the correct path lies. The text is full of intentional ambiguity, and we should not try to tidy it up in translation. Bates often explains sections of the work that do not overtly support his thesis by asserting that Aristotle wants us to delve more deeply into the idea of the "regime" -- Bates' consistent translation for "politeia" -- rather than to offer clear-cut answers to straight-forward problems.

Chapter One, "The City," asserts that "in essence, Politics 3 is the real beginning of thePolitics." since here "the concept of the regime, or politeia" is explained comprehensively. Bates takes care to discuss the impropriety of "state" and "city" as translations of "polis," differentiating the post-Hobbesian "state" from Aristotle's politeia, and asserting that "to understand the polis, and not only how it changes but also its very character, we need to understand the regime, that which gives form to the polis" (26). In elevating the regime into the central political concept he acknowledges that changing the character of the citizens can change the character of the regime, which can change the polis. Consequently, it is not always clear why he is so insistent that the study of the citizen is a "false start" that is secondary to grasping the regime. Bates claims repeatedly that the regime determines the nature of the citizens, the rulers and the ruled, the concept of justice they accept, and the laws they follow. Aristotle's own approach -- the first two and a third books of his treatise -- clearly moves in a contrary direction, from the individuals in the polis to their political ordering.

Chapter Two, "The Citizen," confronts selections from 3.1-3.5. This provides important commentary to the arguments about the nature of the citizen, why Aristotle's successive definitions fail, how "citizen" and normative terms such as "excellence" and "goodness" are "regime dependent," and how Aristotle can shift his meanings as he discusses serious citizens and good men, excellence in a man versus in all citizens in a polis, etc. But it asserts that the entire discussion of the citizen is a third "false start," following the "failures" of books 1 and 2, and that Aristotle's discussion of offices is a "digression" that intends to show us that starting from the citizen is the wrong way to understand the polis. This is provocative and does lead a reader to dig more deeply into the text.

But this is surely not the essence of Aristotle's approach. The insufficiency of household, mastery, citizen, etc. to understanding the polis is obvious, and Aristotle nowhere claims that such discussions are sufficient. The question is whether they are necessary. It is arguable that Aristotle develops his concept of the politeia inductively, building on other forms of association, the family and mastery, the telos of the polis, the opinions of others, as well as the citizen. The persistent claims that all of this is secondary and that the polis can be understood only from the "regime," seems to want to turn Aristotle's presentation into a deductive argument from the concept "regime." The centrality of politeia is indisputable, but that does not mean it should be the starting point. The politeia is the "ordering of the inhabitants," and the reader wonders how Aristotle could discuss the "ordering" of something before detailed discussion of that which is being ordered.

Chapter Three, "The Regime," notes that book 3 is the "third and final beginning of the whole Politics." It stresses that the "the regime is that which gives form (eidos to the particular political community." This leads to "a radical dependency upon form" by all aspects of the polis (62). This applies to a broad historical context, differentiating Aristotle's personal "governing body" from later, post-Hobbesian abstract political conceptions and anchoring Aristotle's political thought in real, practical considerations. But it also leads to questions about the translation of "politeia" as "regime," especially the relationship between the politeuma and the politeia. Can't the "regime" change while the form of ordering stays the same? But, we need wait until Chapter Five for an explanation for why "politeia" is "regime."

The chapter then turns to the types of regimes that follow the modes of rule of book 1. Aristotle's quantitative argument, based on the one, the few and the many, "deconstructs" under close examination, and becomes qualitative. "Deconstruction occurs when the logic or structure of the argument can no longer remain persuasive because either logically or theoretically it falls apart" (81). Bates shows, for instance, that at Nicomachean Ethics 8.10 tyranny is a parekbasis (deviation) from kingship, while the connection of oligarchy to aristocracy, like democracy to timocracy, is a metabole, a change that is not necessarily a perversion (83). The quantitative typology thus collapses in favor of a qualitative typology, common advantage versus self-interest, that reduces the issue to rival claims to just rule. "The best regime is that regime whose claim to rule best approximates the just when compared to the whole of justice . . . Thus, the Politics is about comparative regimes" (91).

Chapter Four, the shortest in the book (5 pages) deals with "Aristocracy as the Best Regime" (97). This takes the reader to Politics 7 and 8 and an attack on the claim that Aristotle's best regime is an aristocracy. In Bates' view, the discussion here is not about the best rule, but rather about rule by the best. Bates then shows that rule by the best cannot be the best regime, since it is not a regime type at all. It can "encompass many regime types" (101). This is a pervasive argumentative strategy throughout the book. Various contenders to the title of "best regime" are eliminated by showing that they are not regime types at all.

Chapter Five turns to disavow a specific regime type called "polity." The subsection "The Use of 'Regime' in Aristotle" looks at why medieval and modern scholars have desired to find a non-existent "mixed politeia" (Aristotle never uses this term). The invention of the "mixed politeia" can be traced back to Thomas Aquinas' skewed reading of William of Moerbeke's Latin translation, and Thomas' desire to interpret Aristotle in Christian terms. "Limited government" finds a similar derivation. Bates claims that readers today also want to find such ideas in Aristotle, either to support a separation of powers doctrine (conservatives) or power-sharing among different elements (liberals). But both groups are wrong: a "mix" by Aristotle is a means to stabilize any regime; it is not a specific regime type. A regime in Aristotle cannot be mixed; a literal "mixed regime" would be a state of civil war. The radical dependence on form, itself based on a single conception of justice, makes this necessary.

Bates' translation of "politeia" in the narrower sense is "regime called regime." But questions dog the reader: if not a regime type or a polity, what exactly is a "regime called regime"? Why not just call it "politeia," as Aristotle does? Bates' strategy of translating "politeia" as "regime" is consistent with his observation that a translator should not try to remove ambiguity from a text by shifting translations as the context changes. To call politeia "constitution" at one point, and "polity" at another, can do serious harm to Aristotle's ideas, and can mislead readers into thinking they have a solid understanding when Aristotle meant something else. But how exactly does substituting "a regime called regime" for "polity" avoid the underlying problem associated with Aristotle's use of the same term for a species as for a genus?

Indeed it remains unclear why "regime" is the proper translation of "politeia" at all. Bates rejects "constitution" because it refers to "written constitutions as we understand the term today" (104). But England's unwritten "constitution" is not a source of confusion to us; we understand that the political order in England is not based on a written, prescriptive document. Ultimately this book suffers from the failure to properly define "regime" and to defend the translation of politeia as "regime." "Regime" has a strong connotation of authoritarian government, which at times threatens to overtake the central idea of the politeia as an "ordering" of the citizens with emphasis on the offices and who may participate in them. A regime may change while the political ordering does not, and a politeia can be something more than a regime. In any event, the politeia embraces more than the ruling power and its form, but also the nature of the people under it.

Chapter Six presents a commentary on 3.9, arguing for the excellence of the many by examining the claims of justice made by oligarchs and democrats. Aristotle rejects the oligarchic view that sharing possessions is the reason for the political community; a shared sense of what is just differentiates a polis from such an alliance. 3.10 to 3.11 is read as a debate between an oligarch and democrat, in which five forms of regime are collapsed into two: oligarchy, and the rule of the many, which remains the only just form of rule. There is a problem here with respect to law: the concept of what is held to be just will shape the specific laws of any particular regime. But this, we read, is not necessarily relativistic: "the problem of the relativity of the law can be solved if one connects the rule of law to the many's rule" (145). The law restrains the excesses of the many. But it also shows their power, since the many will correct deficiencies in the law. This idea, that the power of the many is manifested in their adherence to laws, is fundamental to the view of the "best regime" presented in this book.

Chapter Seven addresses the question of whether Aristotle underrates democracy in the Nicomachean Ethics and uses several lines of argument to maintain the opposite. Aristotle does not praise democracy at EN 8.10 for rhetorical reasons; he was addressing those opposed to it, and "would not desire to upset this audience by praising democracy" (155). Bates provides a good example of how translators can mistreat a text by adding clarifications that are not strictly there. Analyzing NE 8.10 1160b19-21, he shows that democracy is not referred to as "the least vicious of the deviations" but rather as "the least vicious of regimes" (156-7). This follows from recognizing that politeia here is not a specific regime type, but refers rather to regimes in general. In summary, discussion of the "first peak" addresses the democratic argument but does not resolve the final question, that of law versus human rule.

With rivals to the "best regime" discredited and the rule of the many validated, we turn to Part Three, "The Second Peak: The Three Logoi of the Pambasileia." The three logoi are respectively text sections 3.15, 3.16 and 3.17; they contain not only "an argument for the superiority of law" but also "Aristotle's missing critique of Plato's teaching about the philosopher-king" (165). Chapter Eight, "On Kingship," addresses pambasileia, literally "kingship over everything." In discussing forms of kingship, five forms are reduced to two, those restrained by law and pambasileia, which is not. By the elimination of Spartan kingship as a form of regime, the issue at hand is reduced to one central question: whether it is advantageous for one person to have authority over all matters or not.

The "First Logos (1286A7-B40)," Chapter Nine, contrasts the best men with the best laws. The section is read as a dialog between a "partisan for the best man" versus a "partisan for the laws." Anti-law arguments revolve around the issues of universals versus particulars, written instructions versus individual circumstances, and problems of implementation. In his answers to such issues, the partisan for the laws also reveals himself to be "a partisan for the many." "The argument for the laws is actually a justification for the rule of the many over the laws, regardless of the best man's character," since "the numerical strength of the many makes up for the defects of single individuals" (173). Aristotle is clear: the many must rule only where the laws fall short; otherwise they are restrained. This is a limited, not a radical, democracy. For instance, the history of regimes at 3.15 progresses towards more power to the many and demonstrates the active involvement of the many in maintaining the regime under law.

Chapter Ten, "Second Logos (1287A1-B35)" deals more narrowly with the nature of kingly rule; should he rule of his own will or according to law? One disconcerting point in the discussion here is the personification of pambasileia: "the pambasileia rules in all matters only according to his own will" (183). Stricter differentiation between "universal kingship" and "king" is in order; pambasileia is an abstract form of rule, not a king of a certain kind. In the end, the laws are superior to pambasileia, given their ability to educate the many for judgment. The king must also be selected, which is an issue of persuasion. To trust that the king will be good is not sufficient; "the text suggests that the rule of law is preferable by nature to the rule of the pambasileia" (186). The rule of law "both restrains and channels desires that affect political decisions" (187). Related arguments all point to Aristotle's preference for laws and the rule of the many, but in an inconclusive way. Ultimately, Bates maintains, "the whole argument of the second logos points to the problem whether politics can be understood philosophically" (195). For that we need the third logos.

The "Third Logos (1287B36-1288A30)," Chapter Eleven, points to the characters of the multitudes and their dependence on the regime in question. The multitude selects the king, and "as long as the multitude is not slavish the type of king would have to be one of extraordinary merit or excellence." This appears to be a paradox: the people must be excellent to select an excellent king, but if they were excellent they would not need a king. The superior man would be he who appeared as god before others -- and, Aristotle tells us, a god is intellect without passion. The law is also pure intellect, and it restrains the multitude from their excesses without requiring them to live under a king. The discussion of "universal kingship" leads to an elevation of the law over rule by the excellent. It is democracy under law that allows us to reach the two peaks of a human being: the individual peak, derived from the capacity to be a rational being, and the communal, concerned with the best regime.

This book fulfills its promise, to engender engagement with the issues and to demand reassessment of traditional understanding of the best regime. It deals with most of the issues raised in this review to a greater degree than can be indicated here. The footnotes are reasonable and informative. The book itself is unfortunately marred by too many mis-citations and typos; in Chapter One alone, for example, 3.3.1276b33 is a33 (p. 24), and 3.3.1276b113 is b13 (p. 26). Footnote 1 p. 154 has no relation to the text at hand. But, more importantly, students who use this excellent book will need to be aware of how methodological premises, and overall purposes, can shape one's evaluations and conclusions; that is one of the biggest lessons it offers.

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