Forms of Government from Aristotle’s Politics

At Spirit of the Republic, we speak a lot about government. We will take a step back here and look at some early thoughts on different forms of government. The first person to reflect upon forms of government may also be regarded as the first political scientist. That distinction goes to Aristotle, and his notion of the key forms of government is still used today.


Aristotle was born in 384 BC in Stagira, Macedonia. Aristotle’s father, Nicomachus, was the personal physician to King Amyntas III of Macedon. Though Nicomachus died while Aristotle was young, he was exposed to the practice of medicine. This is important, since medicine was one of the earliest fields to separate itself from philosophy. Early on, medicine began to practice a form of inquiry which we can almost recognize as scientific. In addition, having been around a royal household in his formative years, he developed an understanding of government.

King Amyntas III died when Aristotle was about 14 years old and was succeeded by King Philip II. At about 17 years old, Aristotle left Stagira and went to Athens. There, he studied at Plato’s Academy. Aristotle is undoubtedly Plato’s most famous pupil, yet he often differed with his teacher. He remained at the Academy for about 20 years. Shortly after Plato’s death, he returned to Macedonia. At the request of King Philip II, he acted as a tutor to the royal prince, Alexander. When the prince eventually came to power, he would conquer much of the known world. We now know him as Alexander the Great.

An Impressive Legacy

Aristotle was a very prolific author. Almost any area of inquiry can trace its origins back to him. His topics were as diverse as metaphysics, ethics, politics, botany, astronomy, mathematics, zoology, physics, etc. He was referred to as “The Philosopher” by Christian philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas. He was referred to as the “First Teacher” by Muslim scholars. The depth and breadth of his contribution to Western and Muslim intellectual history would be hard to overestimate.

In 335 BC, Macedon under the leadership of Alexander the Great conquered the Greek mainland, including Athens. At about this time, Aristotle returned to Athens, organizing his own philosophical school In Athens, the Lyceum. The works of Aristotle that we have today are thought to have largely been notes for classes or lectures at the Lyceum. They were likely not intended for publication.

Aristotle’s Politics

Two of Aristotle’s works are important for understanding his political philosophy and political science. The first is the Nicomachean Ethics. The second is his Politics. While the Nicomachean Ethics is focused on questions of virtue, vice, and how people should behave, it is very much tied to Aristotle’s understanding of politics. The scrolls on which the two works were written actually suggest that the Nicomachean Ethics may have been basically a Part I, flowing into the Politics as Part II.

Here, we will focus mainly on Aristotle’s discussions in book III of the Politics. A fuller understanding of his work in politics will require knowledge of the Nicomachean Ethics as well.

Purpose of Community

For Aristotle, government exists to serve a purpose. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle makes an argument for the purpose of human life. Our purpose is defined as pursuing happiness, or the good life. The good life, though, is not some sort of hedonistic pursuit of pleasure. Instead, for Aristotle, the good life is one of virtue, one of justice, and is achieved by pursuing a “golden mean” between vices at the extreme.

Government and community, then, have the purpose of supporting our individual quests for the good life. The Politics opens with the following

The state is the highest form of community and aims at the highest good. How it differs from other communities will appear if we examine the parts of which it is composed. It consists of villages which consist of households. The household is founded upon the two relations of male and female, of master and slave; it exists to satisfy man’s daily needs. The village, a wider community, satisfies a wider range of needs. The state aims at satisfying all the needs of men. Men form states to secure a bare subsistence; but the ultimate object of the state is the good life.

The household is the fundamental component of the state. Beyond that, though, the state provides the necessary environment for the household to exist and flourish.


As we move to Book III of the Politics, we begin to get definitions of various political terms. We still use these terms today to discuss different types of government.

We must first consider the idea of a citizen. In short, Aristotle concludes that a citizen is someone with political power. In conjunction with that political power is political participation.

About citizenship, Aristotle writes

The good citizen need not be a good man; the good citizen is one who does good service to his state, and this state may be bad in principle. In a constitutional state the good citizen knows both how to rule and how to obey. The good man is one who is fitted to rule. But the citizen in a constitutional state learns to rule by obeying orders. Therefore citizenship in such a state is a moral training. Mechanics will not be citizens in the best state. Extreme democracies, and some oligarchies, neglect this rule. But circumstances oblige them to do this. They have no choice.

Today, we certainly have a broader idea of who should be citizens. The notion that citizens are those with political power, rights, and an expectation of civic participation, however, is not foreign to us today. We also recognize a difference between citizen and non-citizen.

Purpose of the State

As alluded to in the opening of the Politics, the state exists to help people develop and pursue the good life.

The aims of the state are two; to satisfy man’s social instinct, and to fit him for the good life. Political rule differs from that over slaves in aiming primarily at the good of those who are ruled.

Any specific form of government may be good or bad. The difference depends on whether the government serves the good of the ruled or not.

The Forms of Government

Aristotle categorizes government first and foremost by how many people rule.

Rule by One

Monarchy is the rule of one for the welfare of the ruled. Monarchy, however, may become corrupted. Tyranny is the corrupt rule of one, and we find this when, for instance, the ruler rules for his benefit, not for the benefit of the ruled.

Rule by a Few

A good government in which a few rule is an Aristocracy. Conceptually, the best in the community would be the rulers in an aristocracy.

A corrupt government by the few is an Oligarchy. Oligarchy is a rule of the rich. Oligarchs will hold that political power should be unequal, usually proportional to someone’s wealth. The wealthier the person, the more political power they would have by design. This system is fundamentally corrupt because it focuses on wealth instead of virtue.

Rule by Many

A good government with rule by the many is a Polity.

The corrupt form of rule by many is Democracy. Democracy is the rule of the poor. Democrats advocate equality of political power. Fundamentally, however, democracy has the same flaw as oligarchy. It pursues a goal other than virtue.

Why this emphasis on virtue? Remember that according to Aristotle, virtue is the path to the good life. The good life is the natural aim of human existence. Virtue, thus, is the path to the realize our purpose. Justice, also, is tied to virtue. A pursuit of wealth-based power and equality both fail to pursue justice by setting aside virtue as the goal of the state.

The Polity as a Practical Ideal Form of Government

While Aristotle may see a Monarchy as ideal when a preeminent man can be found to rule, such a person may often not be available. The virtuous rule by many is the polity, and that may be a good practical alternative when a man suited to be monarch is not available. The polity is a specific political structure. It is not simply virtuous rule by many. In the polity, each class is suited to, and fills, specific roles in the community.

It would be unreasonable to give the highest offices to the Many. But they have a faculty of criticism which fits them for deliberative and judicial power [as on juries]. The good critic need not be an expert; experts are sometimes bad judges. Moreover, the Many have a greater stake in the city than the Few. But the governing body, whether Few or Many, must be held in check by the laws. . . .

Hence, there is something in the claims advanced by the wealthy, the free born, the noble, the highly gifted. But no one of the classes should be allowed to rule the rest.

Aristotle’s Forms of Government Through the Ages

Aristotle gives us the notion that the best state is organized so members of the different classes in society participate in the state according to what they are best at. The ideal state, thus, may include elements of rule by one (in administering laws), rule by a few (in making laws) and rule by many (in judicial roles such as serving on juries). In Aristotle’s polity, we may see the seed of a mixed form of government that would be developed centuries later into republican political theory by other political thinkers.

By giving us some basic vocabulary for discussing governments, Aristotle helped create political science and shape how we think about government. Today, we continue to look at forms of government largely by who rules – the one, the few, or the many. We would do well to consider what Aristotle sees as the strengths or weaknesses of the various forms.