Kant’s Social and Political Philosophy

Immanuel Kant

Kant’s political philosophy is a branch of practical philosophy, one-half of one of the broadest divisions in Kant’s thought between practical and theoretical philosophy. Political philosophy is also to be distinguished within practical philosophy from both empirical elements and from virtue proper. The separation from virtue is treated in the next paragraph. Regarding the empirical elements, it is worth mentioning that practical philosophy, as a set of rules governing free behavior of rational beings, covers all human action in both its pure and applied (empirical, or “impure”) aspects. Pure practical philosophy, the rational elements of practical philosophy in abstraction from anything empirical, is called by Kant “metaphysics of morals” (4:388). Kant so emphasized the priority of the pure aspect of political philosophy that he wrote part of his essay “On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, but it is of No Use in Practice” in opposition to the view he associates with Hobbes that the politician need not be concerned with abstract right but only with pragmatic governance (8:289–306). Yet Kant also included the more pragmatic, impure, empirical study of human behavior as part of practical philosophy. For ethics in general, Kant called the empirical study of human beings as agents within particular cultures and with particular natural capacities “anthropology”. Some of Kant’s social philosophy fits into this rubric (See section 10).

Political philosophy is not only a branch of Kant’s practical philosophy, it strongly depends upon Kant’s core practical philosophy for its basis. Kant’s practical philosophy and the categorical imperative that governs it were intended to form the ground not only for what is thought today to be ethics proper but also for everything that broadly speaking had to do with deliberative human behavior. He defined practical philosophy as that concerned with “rules of behavior in regard to free choice”, as opposed to theoretical philosophy that concerned “the rule of knowledge” (Kant 27: 243). Practical philosophy provided rules to govern human deliberative action. The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals provided Kant’s main arguments that the categorical imperative is the supreme rule for human deliberative action. In its Preface, he notes that the Groundwork is to be a preparatory book for a future Metaphysics of Morals. Twelve years later he published that Metaphysics of Morals in two parts, the “Doctrine of Right” and the “Doctrine of Virtue”. Both are equally parts of Kant’s practical philosophy, and both thus have the categorical imperative as their highest principle.

The book Metaphysics of Morals has two distinct parts: the “Doctrine of Right” and the “Doctrine of Virtue”. Kant sought to separate political rights and duties from what we might call morals in the narrow sense. He limits right by stating three conditions (6:230) that have to be met for something to be enforceable as right: first, right concerns only actions that have influence on other persons, directly or indirectly, meaning duties to the self are excluded, second right does not concern the wish but only the choice of others, meaning that not mere desires but only decisions which bring about actions are at stake, and third right does not concern the matter of the other’s act but only the form, meaning no particular desires or ends are assumed on the part of the agents. As an example of the latter he considers trade, which for right must have the form of being freely agreed by both parties but can have any matter or purpose the agents want. These criteria appear to be less rigid than Kant ultimately intends, for the term “influence” is vague enough that it might include far-reaching minor effects. They would also include under right actions even those imperfect duties that “influence” others by improving their lot, such as beneficent acts of charity. John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” does not face this problem since it specifies that the influence to be subject to law is always negative. While Kant must include consideration of beneficent action as part of right, he does not conclude that beneficent actions are required by right but only that most are permitted by right and others violate right. His focus on free individual choice entails that any beneficent action that interferes with or usurps the recipient’s free choice is wrong (for example, improving the recipient’s property without permission as opposed to merely donating money to a fund made available to the recipient at the recipient’s discretion). In addition to these three conditions for right, Kant also offers direct contrasts between right and virtue. He thinks both relate to freedom but in different ways: right concerns outer freedom and virtue concerns inner freedom (being master of one’s own passions) (6:406–07). Right concerns acts themselves independent of the motive an agent may have for performing them, virtue concerns the proper motive for dutiful actions (6:218–221). In another formulation (6:380–81) he says that right concerns universality as a formal condition of freedom while virtue concerns a necessary end beyond the mere formality of universality, thus appearing to tie the distinction to the first two formulas of the categorical imperative in the Groundwork. In yet another he says that right concerns narrow duties and virtue wide duties (6:390). In the Feyerabend lectures, Kant notes that right is the subset of morally correct actions that are also coercible (27:1327). These various alternative formulations of the distinction would exclude imperfect duties not because imperfect duties do not “influence” others (they do) but because, as imperfect, they cannot be coerced in particular instances, since imperfect duties always allow for the moderating role of an individual’s inclinations. While these various formulations of the distinction appear to be quite different, they can in general be summarized by saying that right concerns outer action corresponding to perfect duty that affects others regardless of the individual’s internal motivations or goals.

The Life and Works of Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant was born April 22, 1724 in Königsberg, near the southeastern shore of the Baltic Sea. Today Königsberg has been renamed Kaliningrad and is part of Russia. But during Kant’s lifetime Königsberg was the capitol of East Prussia, and its dominant language was German. Though geographically remote from the rest of Prussia and other German cities, Königsberg was then a major commercial center, an important military port, and a relatively cosmopolitan university town.

Kant was born into an artisan family of modest means. His father was a master harness maker, and his mother was the daughter of a harness maker, though she was better educated than most women of her social class. Kant’s family was never destitute, but his father’s trade was in decline during Kant’s youth and his parents at times had to rely on extended family for financial support.

Kant’s parents were Pietist and he attended a Pietist school, the Collegium Fridericianum, from ages eight through fifteen. Pietism was an evangelical Lutheran movement that emphasized conversion, reliance on divine grace, the experience of religious emotions, and personal devotion involving regular Bible study, prayer, and introspection. Kant reacted strongly against the forced soul-searching to which he was subjected at the Collegium Fridericianum, in response to which he sought refuge in the Latin classics, which were central to the school’s curriculum. Later the mature Kant’s emphasis on reason and autonomy, rather than emotion and dependence on either authority or grace, may in part reflect his youthful reaction against Pietism. But although the young Kant loathed his Pietist schooling, he had deep respect and admiration for his parents, especially his mother, whose “genuine religiosity” he described as “not at all enthusiastic.” According to his biographer, Manfred Kuehn, Kant’s parents probably influenced him much less through their Pietism than through their artisan values of “hard work, honesty, cleanliness, and independence,” which they taught him by example.

Kant attended college at the University of Königsberg, known as the Albertina, where his early interest in classics was quickly superseded by philosophy, which all first year students studied and which encompassed mathematics and physics as well as logic, metaphysics, ethics, and natural law. Kant’s philosophy professors exposed him to the approach of Christian Wolff (1679–1750), whose critical synthesis of the philosophy of G. W. Leibniz (1646–1716) was then very influential in German universities. But Kant was also exposed to a range of German and British critics of Wolff, and there were strong doses of Aristotelianism and Pietism represented in the philosophy faculty as well. Kant’s favorite teacher was Martin Knutzen (1713–1751), a Pietist who was heavily influenced by both Wolff and the English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704). Knutzen introduced Kant to the work of Isaac Newton (1642–1727), and his influence is visible in Kant’s first published work, Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces (1747), which was a critical attempt to mediate a dispute in natural philosophy between Leibnizians and Newtonians over the proper measurement of force.

After college Kant spent six years as a private tutor to young children outside Königsberg. By this time both of his parents had died and Kant’s finances were not yet secure enough for him to pursue an academic career. He finally returned to Königsberg in 1754 and began teaching at the Albertina the following year. For the next four decades Kant taught philosophy there, until his retirement from teaching in 1796 at the age of seventy-two.

Kant had a burst of publishing activity in the years after he returned from working as a private tutor. In 1754 and 1755 he published three scientific works — one of which, Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755), was a major book in which, among other things, he developed what later became known as the nebular hypothesis about the formation of the solar system. Unfortunately, the printer went bankrupt and the book had little immediate impact. To secure qualifications for teaching at the university, Kant also wrote two Latin dissertations: the first, entitled Concise Outline of Some Reflections on Fire (1755), earned him the Magister degree; and the second, New Elucidation of the First Principles of Metaphysical Cognition (1755), entitled him to teach as an unsalaried lecturer. The following year he published another Latin work, The Employment in Natural Philosophy of Metaphysics Combined with Geometry, of Which Sample I Contains the Physical Monadology (1756), in hopes of succeeding Knutzen as associate professor of logic and metaphysics, though Kant failed to secure this position. Both the New Elucidation, which was Kant’s first work concerned mainly with metaphysics, and the Physical Monadology further develop the position on the interaction of finite substances that he first outlined in Living Forces. Both works depart from Leibniz-Wolffian views, though not radically. The New Elucidation in particular shows the influence of Christian August Crusius (1715–1775), a German critic of Wolff.

As an unsalaried lecturer at the Albertina Kant was paid directly by the students who attended his lectures, so he needed to teach an enormous amount and to attract many students in order to earn a living. Kant held this position from 1755 to 1770, during which period he would lecture an average of twenty hours per week on logic, metaphysics, and ethics, as well as mathematics, physics, and physical geography. In his lectures Kant used textbooks by Wolffian authors such as Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) and Georg Friedrich Meier (1718–1777), but he followed them loosely and used them to structure his own reflections, which drew on a wide range of ideas of contemporary interest. These ideas often stemmed from British sentimentalist philosophers such as David Hume (1711–1776) and Francis Hutcheson (1694–1747), some of whose texts were translated into German in the mid-1750’s; and from the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), who published a flurry of works in the early 1760’s. From early in his career Kant was a popular and successful lecturer. He also quickly developed a local reputation as a promising young intellectual and cut a dashing figure in Königsberg society.

After several years of relative quiet, Kant unleashed another burst of publications in 1762–1764, including five philosophical works. The False Subtlety of the Four Syllogistic Figures (1762) rehearses criticisms of Aristotelian logic that were developed by other German philosophers. The Only Possible Argument in Support of a Demonstration of the Existence of God (1762–3) is a major book in which Kant drew on his earlier work in Universal History and New Elucidation to develop an original argument for God’s existence as a condition of the internal possibility of all things, while criticizing other arguments for God’s existence. The book attracted several positive and some negative reviews. In 1762 Kant also submitted an essay entitled Inquiry Concerning the Distinctness of the Principles of Natural Theology and Morality to a prize competition by the Prussian Royal Academy, though Kant’s submission took second prize to Moses Mendelssohn’s winning essay (and was published with it in 1764). Kant’s Prize Essay, as it is known, departs more significantly from Leibniz-Wolffian views than his earlier work and also contains his first extended discussion of moral philosophy in print. The Prize Essay draws on British sources to criticize German rationalism in two respects: first, drawing on Newton, Kant distinguishes between the methods of mathematics and philosophy; and second, drawing on Hutcheson, he claims that “an unanalysable feeling of the good” supplies the material content of our moral obligations, which cannot be demonstrated in a purely intellectual way from the formal principle of perfection alone (2:299).[4] These themes reappear in the Attempt to Introduce the Concept of Negative Magnitudes into Philosophy (1763), whose main thesis, however, is that the real opposition of conflicting forces, as in causal relations, is not reducible to the logical relation of contradiction, as Leibnizians held. In Negative Magnitudes Kant also argues that the morality of an action is a function of the internal forces that motivate one to act, rather than of the external (physical) actions or their consequences. Finally, Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime (1764) deals mainly with alleged differences in the tastes of men and women and of people from different cultures. After it was published, Kant filled his own interleaved copy of this book with (often unrelated) handwritten remarks, many of which reflect the deep influence of Rousseau on his thinking about moral philosophy in the mid-1760’s.

These works helped to secure Kant a broader reputation in Germany, but for the most part they were not strikingly original. Like other German philosophers at the time, Kant’s early works are generally concerned with using insights from British empiricist authors to reform or broaden the German rationalist tradition without radically undermining its foundations. While some of his early works tend to emphasize rationalist ideas, others have a more empiricist emphasis. During this time Kant was striving to work out an independent position, but before the 1770’s his views remained fluid.

In 1766 Kant published his first work concerned with the possibility of metaphysics, which later became a central topic of his mature philosophy. Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics, which he wrote soon after publishing a short Essay on Maladies of the Mind (1764), was occasioned by Kant’s fascination with the Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), who claimed to have insight into a spirit world that enabled him to make a series of apparently miraculous predictions. In this curious work Kant satirically compares Swedenborg’s spirit-visions to the belief of rationalist metaphysicians in an immaterial soul that survives death, and he concludes that philosophical knowledge of either is impossible because human reason is limited to experience. The skeptical tone of Dreams is tempered, however, by Kant’s suggestion that “moral faith” nevertheless supports belief in an immaterial and immortal soul, even if it is not possible to attain metaphysical knowledge in this domain (2:373).

In 1770, at the age of forty-six, Kant was appointed to the chair in logic and metaphysics at the Albertina, after teaching for fifteen years as an unsalaried lecturer and working since 1766 as a sublibrarian to supplement his income. Kant was turned down for the same position in 1758. But later, as his reputation grew, he declined chairs in philosophy at Erlangen (1769) and Jena (1770) in hopes of obtaining one in Königsberg. After Kant was finally promoted, he gradually extended his repertoire of lectures to include anthropology (Kant’s was the first such course in Germany and became very popular), rational theology, pedagogy, natural right, and even mineralogy and military fortifications. In order to inaugurate his new position, Kant also wrote one more Latin dissertation: Concerning the Form and Principles of the Sensible and Intelligible World (1770), which is known as the Inaugural Dissertation.

The Inaugural Dissertation departs more radically from both Wolffian rationalism and British sentimentalism than Kant’s earlier work. Inspired by Crusius and the Swiss natural philosopher Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728–1777), Kant distinguishes between two fundamental powers of cognition, sensibility and understanding (intelligence), where the Leibniz-Wolffians regarded understanding (intellect) as the only fundamental power. Kant therefore rejects the rationalist view that sensibility is only a confused species of intellectual cognition, and he replaces this with his own view that sensibility is distinct from understanding and brings to perception its own subjective forms of space and time — a view that developed out of Kant’s earlier criticism of Leibniz’s relational view of space in Concerning the Ultimate Ground of the Differentiation of Directions in Space (1768). Moreover, as the title of the Inaugural Dissertation indicates, Kant argues that sensibility and understanding are directed at two different worlds: sensibility gives us access to the sensible world, while understanding enables us to grasp a distinct intelligible world. These two worlds are related in that what the understanding grasps in the intelligible world is the “paradigm” of “NOUMENAL PERFECTION,” which is “a common measure for all other things in so far as they are realities.” Considered theoretically, this intelligible paradigm of perfection is God; considered practically, it is “MORAL PERFECTION” (2:396). The Inaugural Dissertation thus develops a form of Platonism; and it rejects the view of British sentimentalists that moral judgments are based on feelings of pleasure or pain, since Kant now holds that moral judgments are based on pure understanding alone.

After 1770 Kant never surrendered the views that sensibility and understanding are distinct powers of cognition, that space and time are subjective forms of human sensibility, and that moral judgments are based on pure understanding (or reason) alone. But his embrace of Platonism in the Inaugural Dissertation was short-lived. He soon denied that our understanding is capable of insight into an intelligible world, which cleared the path toward his mature position in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781), according to which the understanding (like sensibility) supplies forms that structure our experience of the sensible world, to which human knowledge is limited, while the intelligible (or noumenal) world is strictly unknowable to us. Kant spent a decade working on the Critique of Pure Reason and published nothing else of significance between 1770 and 1781. But its publication marked the beginning of another burst of activity that produced Kant’s most important and enduring works. Because early reviews of the Critique of Pure Reason were few and (in Kant’s judgment) uncomprehending, he tried to clarify its main points in the much shorter Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics That Will Be Able to Come Forward as a Science (1783). Among the major books that rapidly followed are the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785), Kant’s main work on the fundamental principle of morality; the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786), his main work on natural philosophy in what scholars call his critical period (1781–1798); the second and substantially revised edition of the Critique of Pure Reason (1787); the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), a fuller discussion of topics in moral philosophy that builds on (and in some ways revises) the Groundwork; and the Critique of the Power of Judgment (1790), which deals with aesthetics and teleology. Kant also published a number of important essays in this period, including Idea for a Universal History With a Cosmopolitan Aim (1784) and Conjectural Beginning of Human History (1786), his main contributions to the philosophy of history; An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784), which broaches some of the key ideas of his later political essays; and What Does it Mean to Orient Oneself in Thinking? (1786), Kant’s intervention in the pantheism controversy that raged in German intellectual circles after F. H. Jacobi (1743–1819) accused the recently deceased G. E. Lessing (1729–1781) of Spinozism.

With these works Kant secured international fame and came to dominate German philosophy in the late 1780’s. But in 1790 he announced that the Critique of the Power of Judgment brought his critical enterprise to an end (5:170). By then K. L. Reinhold (1758–1823), whose Letters on the Kantian Philosophy (1786) popularized Kant’s moral and religious ideas, had been installed (in 1787) in a chair devoted to Kantian philosophy at Jena, which was more centrally located than Königsberg and rapidly developing into the focal point of the next phase in German intellectual history. Reinhold soon began to criticize and move away from Kant’s views. In 1794 his chair at Jena passed to J. G. Fichte, who had visited the master in Königsberg and whose first book, Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (1792), was published anonymously and initially mistaken for a work by Kant himself. This catapulted Fichte to fame, but he too soon moved away from Kant and developed an original position quite at odds with Kant’s, which Kant finally repudiated publicly in 1799 (12:370–371). Yet while German philosophy moved on to assess and respond to Kant’s legacy, Kant himself continued publishing important works in the 1790’s. Among these are Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), which drew a censure from the Prussian King when Kant published the book after its second essay was rejected by the censor; The Conflict of the Faculties (1798), a collection of essays inspired by Kant’s troubles with the censor and dealing with the relationship between the philosophical and theological faculties of the university; On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory, But it is of No Use in Practice (1793), Toward Perpetual Peace (1795), and the Doctrine of Right, the first part of the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), Kant’s main works in political philosophy; the Doctrine of Virtue, the second part of the Metaphysics of Morals (1797), a catalogue of duties that Kant had been planning for more than thirty years; and Anthropology From a Pragmatic Point of View (1798), based on Kant’s anthropology lectures. Several other compilations of Kant’s lecture notes from other courses were published later, but these were not prepared by Kant himself.

Kant retired from teaching in 1796. For nearly two decades he had lived a highly disciplined life focused primarily on completing his philosophical system, which began to take definite shape in his mind only in middle age. After retiring he came to believe that there was a gap in this system separating the metaphysical foundations of natural science from physics itself, and he set out to close this gap in a series of notes that postulate the existence of an ether or caloric matter. These notes, known as the Opus Postumum, remained unfinished and unpublished in Kant’s lifetime, and scholars disagree on their significance and relation to his earlier work. It is clear, however, that these late notes show unmistakable signs of Kant’s mental decline, which became tragically precipitous around 1800. Kant died February 12, 1804, just short of his eightieth birthday.


The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles is an object in a Greek legend which is designed to illustrate the perils of being in a position of power. The term is often used in popular culture to talk about an imminent threat or peril, with the idiom “the Sword of Damocles” in reference to such a threat dating back to around 1747, along with the related concept of “hanging by a thread.” The story of Damocles is relatively brief, and as a result many people are familiar with it.

According to legend, Damocles was a courtier in the palace of Dionysius II, a king who ruled Syracuse in the 4th century BCE. Like many courtiers, Damocles constantly flattered the king, in the hopes that he would be given a position of greater power in the court. Apparently, Dionysius tired of the constant flattery, and he asked Damocles if the courtier would like to switch places for a day, to see what it would be like to be a ruler.

Damocles eagerly assented, and spent a day being waited on by the king and other attendants. Towards the end of the day, while seated at dinner, Damocles looked up to see a heavy sword suspended directly over his head, hanging by a hair. In a panic, he asked Dionysius about the meaning of the sword, and the ruler explained that he wanted to show Damocles what it was like to be in a position of power, which might seem privileged from a distance to the casual eye but was actually quite dangerous.

The sword terrified Damocles into fleeing the court, with no more thoughts of power in his head, and the parable about the Sword of Damocles became a symbol for the hidden dangers of power. Timaeus, an Ancient Greek historian, recounted the parable about the Sword of Damocles, and it was picked up by Cicero several centuries later, entering popular culture in Europe. In the 17th century, the concept of the Sword of Damocles appeared in many works by popular authors and artists, making many people in the West familiar with the idea even if they hadn’t read Cicero.

The concept of hanging by a thread as a leader is very poignant. It illustrates the incredible danger which many leaders find themselves in, as they are often beset on all sides both literally and figuratively, making their positions far from enjoyable. The Sword of Damocles is a somber reminder that power comes with many dangers attached.

Beethoven and his loss of hearing

Beethoven Deaf by Artigas

Around 1796, by the age of 26, Beethoven began to lose his hearing. He suffered from a severe form of tinnitus, a “ringing” in his ears that made it hard for him to hear music; he also avoided conversation. The cause of Beethoven’s deafness is unknown, but it has variously been attributed to typhus, auto-immune disorders (such as systemic lupus erythematosus), and even his habit of immersing his head in cold water to stay awake. The explanation from Beethoven’s autopsy was that he had a “distended inner ear,” which developed lesions over time.

As early as 1801, Beethoven wrote to friends describing his symptoms and the difficulties they caused in both professional and social settings (although it is likely some of his close friends were already aware of the problems). Beethoven, on the advice of his doctor, lived in the small Austrian town of Heiligenstadt, just outside Vienna, from April to October 1802 in an attempt to come to terms with his condition. There he wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament, a letter to his brothers which records his thoughts of suicide due to his growing deafness and records his resolution to continue living for and through his art. Over time, his hearing loss became profound: there is a well-attested story that, at the end of the premiere of his Ninth Symphony, he had to be turned around to see the tumultuous applause of the audience; hearing nothing, he wept. Beethoven’s hearing loss did not prevent his composing music, but it made playing at concerts—a lucrative source of income—increasingly difficult. After a failed attempt in 1811 to perform his own Piano Concerto No. 5 (the “Emperor”), which was premiered by his student Carl Czerny, he never performed in public again.

A large collection of Beethoven’s hearing aids, such as a special ear horn, can be viewed at the Beethoven House Museum in Bonn, Germany. Despite his obvious distress, Czerny remarked that Beethoven could still hear speech and music normally until 1812. By 1814 however, Beethoven was almost totally deaf, and when a group of visitors saw him play a loud arpeggio of thundering bass notes at his piano remarking, “Ist es nicht schön?” (Is it not beautiful?), they felt deep sympathy considering his courage and sense of humor (he lost the ability to hear higher frequencies first).

As a result of Beethoven’s hearing loss, his conversation books are an unusually rich written resource. Used primarily in the last ten or so years of his life, his friends wrote in these books so that he could know what they were saying, and he then responded either orally or in the book. The books contain discussions about music and other matters, and give insights into Beethoven’s thinking; they are a source for investigations into how he intended his music should be performed, and also his perception of his relationship to art. Out of a total of 400 conversation books, it has been suggested that 264 were destroyed (and others were altered) after Beethoven’s death by Anton Schindler, who wished only an idealised biography of the composer to survive.

Aristotle: Who Should Rule?


This brings us to perhaps the most contentious of political questions: how should the regime be organized? Another way of putting this is: who should rule? In Books IV-VI Aristotle explores this question by looking at the kinds of regimes that actually existed in the Greek world and answering the question of who actually does rule. By closely examining regimes that actually exist, we can draw conclusions about the merits and drawbacks of each. Like political scientists today, he studied the particular political phenomena of his time in order to draw larger conclusions about how regimes and political institutions work and how they should work. As has been mentioned above, in order to do this, he sent his students throughout Greece to collect information on the regimes and histories of the Greek cities, and he uses this information throughout the Politics to provide examples that support his arguments. (According to Diogenes Laertius, histories and descriptions of the regimes of 158 cities were written, but only one of these has come down to the present: the Constitution of Athens mentioned above).

Another way he used this data was to create a typology of regimes that was so successful that it ended up being used until the time of Machiavelli nearly 2000 years later. He used two criteria to sort the regimes into six categories.

The first criterion that is used to distinguish among different kinds of regimes is the number of those ruling: one man, a few men, or the many. The second is perhaps a little more unexpected: do those in power, however many they are, rule only in their own interest or do they rule in the interest of all the citizens? “[T]hose regimes which look to the common advantage are correct regimes according to what is unqualifiedly just, while those which look only to the advantage of the rulers are errant, and are all deviations from the correct regimes; for they involve mastery, but the city is a partnership of free persons” (1279a16).

Having established these as the relevant criteria, in Book III Chapter 7 Aristotle sets out the six kinds of regimes. The correct regimes are monarchy (rule by one man for the common good), aristocracy (rule by a few for the common good), and polity (rule by the many for the common good); the flawed or deviant regimes are tyranny (rule by one man in his own interest), oligarchy (rule by the few in their own interest), and democracy (rule by the many in their own interest). Aristotle later ranks them in order of goodness, with monarchy the best, aristocracy the next best, then polity, democracy, oligarchy, and tyranny (1289a38). People in Western societies are used to thinking of democracy as a good form of government – maybe the only good form of government – but Aristotle considers it one of the flawed regimes (although it is the least bad of the three) and you should keep that in mind in his discussion of it. You should also keep in mind that by the “common good” Aristotle means the common good of the citizens, and not necessarily all the residents of the city. The women, slaves, and manual laborers are in the city for the good of the citizens.

Almost immediately after this typology is created, Aristotle clarifies it: the real distinction between oligarchy and democracy is in fact the distinction between whether the wealthy or the poor rule (1279b39), not whether the many or the few rule. Since it is always the case that the poor are many while the wealthy are few, it looks like it is the number of the rulers rather than their wealth which distinguishes the two kinds of regimes (he elaborates on this in IV.4). All cities have these two groups, the many poor and the few wealthy, and Aristotle was well aware that it was the conflict between these two groups that caused political instability in the cities, even leading to civil wars (Thucydides describes this in his History of the Peloponnesian War, and the Constitution of Athens also discusses the consequences of this conflict). Aristotle therefore spends a great deal of time discussing these two regimes and the problem of political instability, and we will focus on this problem as well.

First, however, let us briefly consider with Aristotle one other valid claim to rule. Those who are most virtuous have, Aristotle says, the strongest claim of all to rule. If the city exists for the sake of developing virtue in the citizens, then those who have the most virtue are the most fit to rule; they will rule best, and on behalf of all the citizens, establishing laws that lead others to virtue. However, if one man or a few men of exceptional virtue exist in the regime, we will be outside of politics: “If there is one person so outstanding by his excess of virtue – or a number of persons, though not enough to provide a full complement for the city – that the virtue of all the others and their political capacity is not commensurable…such persons can no longer be regarded as part of the city” (1284a4). It would be wrong for the other people in the city to claim the right to rule over them or share rule with them, just as it would be wrong for people to claim the right to share power with Zeus. The proper thing would be to obey them (1284b28). But this situation is extremely unlikely (1287b40). Instead, cities will be made up of people who are similar and equal, which leads to problems of its own.

The most pervasive of these is that oligarchs and democrats each advance a claim to political power based on justice. For Aristotle, justice dictates that equal people should get equal things, and unequal people should get unequal things. If, for example, two students turn in essays of identical quality, they should each get the same grade. Their work is equal, and so the reward should be too. If they turn in essays of different quality, they should get different grades which reflect the differences in their work. But the standards used for grading papers are reasonably straightforward, and the consequences of this judgment are not that important, relatively speaking – they certainly are not worth fighting and dying for. But the stakes are raised when we ask how we should judge the question of who should rule, for the standards here are not straightforward and disagreement over the answer to this question frequently does lead men (and women) to fight and die.

What does justice require when political power is being distributed? Aristotle says that both groups – the oligarchs and democrats – offer judgments about this, but neither of them gets it right, because “the judgment concerns themselves, and most people are bad judges concerning their own things” (1280a14). (This was the political problem that was of most concern to the authors of the United States Constitution: given that people are self-interested and ambitious, who can be trusted with power? Their answer differs from Aristotle’s, but it is worth pointing out the persistence of the problem and the difficulty of solving it). The oligarchs assert that their greater wealth entitles them to greater power, which means that they alone should rule, while the democrats say that the fact that all are equally free entitles each citizen to an equal share of political power (which, because most people are poor, means that in effect the poor rule). If the oligarchs’ claim seems ridiculous, you should keep in mind that the American colonies had property qualifications for voting; those who could not prove a certain level of wealth were not allowed to vote. And poll taxes, which required people to pay a tax in order to vote and therefore kept many poor citizens (including almost all African-Americans) from voting, were not eliminated in the United States until the mid-20th century. At any rate, each of these claims to rule, Aristotle says, is partially correct but partially wrong. We will consider the nature of democracy and oligarchy shortly.

Aristotle also in Book III argues for a principle that has become one of the bedrock principles of liberal democracy: we ought, to the extent possible, allow the law to rule. “One who asks the law to rule, therefore, is held to be asking god and intellect alone to rule, while one who asks man adds the beast. Desire is a thing of this sort; and spiritedness perverts rulers and the best men. Hence law is intellect without appetite” (1287a28). This is not to say that the law is unbiased. It will reflect the bias of the regime, as it must, because the law reinforces the principles of the regime and helps educate the citizens in those principles so that they will support the regime. But in any particular case, the law, having been established in advance, is impartial, whereas a human judge will find it hard to resist judging in his own interest, according to his own desires and appetites, which can easily lead to injustice. Also, if this kind of power is left in the hands of men rather than with the laws, there will be a desperate struggle to control these offices and their benefits, and this will be another cause of civil war. So whatever regime is in power should, to the extent possible, allow the laws to rule. Ruling in accordance with one’s wishes at any particular time is one of the hallmarks of tyranny (it is the same way masters rule over slaves), and it is also, Aristotle says, typical of a certain kind of democracy, which rules by decree rather than according to settled laws. In these cases we are no longer dealing with politics at all, “For where the laws do not rule there is no regime” (1292b30). There are masters and slaves, but there are no citizens.


Dr. Edward Everett Hale, Senate Chaplain

Edward Everett Hale

 “Do you pray for the Senators, Dr. Hale? someone asked the chaplain. No, I look at the Senators and pray for the country.”  


EDWARD EVERETT HALE, Senate chaplain. The celebrated anecdote is not so unambiguous as it appears. There is no reason to doubt the authenticity of Hales reply, but it should be understood within a framework of respect for the senators as well as concern for the country. He knew every one of them personally and regarded them, as he said in his preface to Prayers in The Senate , as intelligent men, in very close daily intimacy with each other, in the discharge of a common duty of the greatest importance.John R. Adams, Edward Everett Hale,

The Importance of the Middle Class According to Aristotle

Plato and Aristotle

In addition to combining elements from the institutions of democracy and oligarchy, the person wishing to create a lasting polity must pay attention to the economic situation in the city. In Book II of the EthicsAristotle famously establishes the principle that virtue is a mean between two extremes. For example, a soldier who flees before a battle is guilty of the vice of cowardice, while one who charges the enemy singlehandedly, breaking ranks and getting himself killed for no reason, is guilty of the vice of foolhardiness. The soldier who practices the virtue of courage is the one who faces the enemy, moves forward with the rest of the troops in good order, and fights bravely. Courage, then, is a mean between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. The person who has it neither flees from the enemy nor engages in a suicidal and pointless attack but faces the enemy bravely and attacks in the right way.

Aristotle draws a parallel between virtue in individuals and virtue in cities. The city, he says, has three parts: the rich, the poor, and the middle class. Today we would probably believe that it is the rich people who are the most fortunate of those three groups, but this is not Aristotle’s position. He says: “[I]t is evident that in the case of the goods of fortune as well a middling possession is the best of all. For [a man of moderate wealth] is readiest to obey reason, while for one who is [very wealthy or very poor] it is difficult to follow reason. The former sort tend to become arrogant and base on a grand scale, the latter malicious and base in petty ways; and acts of injustice are committed either through arrogance or through malice” (1295b4). A political community that has extremes of wealth and poverty “is a city not of free persons but of slaves and masters, the ones consumed by envy, the others by contempt. Nothing is further removed from affection and from a political partnership” (1295b22). People in the middle class are free from the arrogance that characterizes the rich and the envy that characterizes the poor. And, since members of this class are similar and equal in wealth, they are likely to regard one another as similar and equal generally, and to be willing to rule and be ruled in turn, neither demanding to rule at all times as the wealthy do or trying to avoid ruling as the poor do from their lack of resources. “Thus it is the greatest good fortune for those who are engaged in politics to have a middling and sufficient property, because where some possess very many things and others nothing, either [rule of] the people in its extreme form must come into being, or unmixed oligarchy, or – as a result of both of these excesses – tyranny. For tyranny arises from the most headstrong sort of democracy and from oligarchy, but much less often from the middling sorts [of regime] and those close to them” (1295b39).

There can be an enduring polity only when the middle class is able either to rule on its own or in conjunction with either of the other two groups, for in this way it can moderate their excesses: “Where the multitude of middling persons predominates either over both of the extremities together or over one alone, there a lasting polity is capable of existing” (1296b38). Unfortunately, Aristotle says, this state of affairs almost never exists. Instead, whichever group, rich or poor, is able to achieve power conducts affairs to suit itself rather than considering the interests of the other group: “whichever of the two succeeds in dominating its opponents does not establish a regime that is common or equal, but they grasp for preeminence in the regime as the prize of victory” (1296a29). And as a result, neither group seeks equality but instead each tries to dominate the other, believing that it is the only way to avoid being dominated in turn. This is a recipe for instability, conflict, and ultimately civil war, rather than a lasting regime. For the polity (or any other regime) to last, “the part of the city that wants the regime to continue must be superior to the part not wanting this” in quality and quantity (1296b16). He repeats this in Book V, calling it the “great principle”: “keep watch to ensure that that the multitude wanting the regime is superior to that not wanting it” (1309b16), and in Book VI he discusses how this can be arranged procedurally (VI.3).

The remainder of Book IV focuses on the kinds of authority and offices in the city and how these can be distributed in democratic or oligarchic fashion. We do not need to concern ourselves with these details, but it does show that Aristotle is concerned with particular kinds of flawed regimes and how they can best operate and function in addition to his interest in the best practical government and the best government generally.