Lesson 4: Typology of Regimes

4.1 Good v. Bad Based upon Common v. Partial Good

Aristotle divides the regimes into six types; three are good and three are bad. The good regime takes care of a common good and not a private or partial good. The bad regimes are more partisan and self or class interested. In turn, the regimes are divided by who rules - one few or many. This leads to the famous typology of six regimes:

Chart 4.1 Types of Regimes According to Aristotle
  For the Common Good For a Partial / Private Good
Rule by one Monarchy Tyranny / Despotism
rule of master over slaves
Rule by few Aristocracy
rule by the best
rule by few (wealthy)
Rule by many Polity
mixed regime, having
characteristics of all
rule by the people (poor)

4.2 What Is Common Good - Maritain

The notion of the common good is therefore essential to evaluating political regimes. Maritain's reflections are helpful here:

Chart 4.2 The Regime or Constitution (Politeia) - MARITAIN

The common good is not only the collection of public commodities and services which the organization of common life presupposes a sound fiscal condition, a strong military force; the body of just laws, good customs, and wise institutions which provides the political society with its structure; the heritage of its great historical remembrances, its symbols and its glories, its living traditions and cultural treasures. The common good also includes the sociological integration of all the civic conscience, political virtues and sense of law and freedom, of all the activity, material prosperity and spiritual riches, of unconsciously operating hereditary wisdom, of moral rectitude, justice, friendship, happiness, virtue and heroism in the individual lives of the members of the body politic. To the extent to which all these things are, in a certain measure, communicable and revert to each member, helping him to perfect his life and liberty as a person, they all constitute the good human life of the multitude.

Jacques Maritain, Man and the State, pp. 10-11.

4.3 Contention between the Claims to Rule

A regime is the form or scheme which organizes political society with respect to its offices, especially the sovereign. In other words, it is about WHO deliberates and judges and in light of WHAT purpose. Purpose includes: i. an idea of the good life, i.e. an ethics, the individual good ii. an idea of justice, the political good determining who should rule? There are various claims to rule and for the end of political society; the three basic claims are - VIRTUE, WEALTH, NUMBERS.

Chart 4.3 The Three Claims to Rule

Each claim gives rise to different regimes - aristocracy, rule of the few, best; democracy, rule of the many, who are frequently poor; oligarchy, rule of the few, wealthy; the rule of the best and most powerful man -kingship (tyranny). Each claim has some truth to it, but remains partial. Hence, it must be checked, and balanced by the others. Each claim has its basis in its contribution to the whole. None can be absolutized (c. 13) or else kingship can be invoked, if not tyranny. But the best regime for most is the mixed regime, or polity, which is a prudential mix of all the claims. We must reflect upon each of the three main claims, the strengths and weaknesses.


The claim of virtue is most justified (see c 13, p. 132, 211). First, the point of the polis is the good life, not just mere life. Virtue most contributes to the good life and well being (chap. 9). Second, who would ask for rule by the frivolous, the vicious, or the inexperienced? e.g. we exclude the criminal, the insane, the child from voting rights, let alone political office itself. Third, what do we have in mind for the term virtue? Leo Strauss states the ancient perspective acknowledges that "those with willingness to prefer common interest to their private interest and to the objects of their passions, and those who can discern what is noble and right in the given situation and do it for that reason." Strauss, Leo. What Is Political Philosophy. New York: Free Press, 1959, p. 86). Simon has some marvelous formulations about the strong claim for virtue, which is made on account of the "few."

The stubborn assertion of the principle of universal suffrage is the more remarkable, since it is made in the face of weighty objections. Good government is the work of excellent wisdom; it demands unusual virtue, intelligence, some education, a great deal of experience, and many other qualifications which cannot be expected to be possessed by any great number of men. Universal suffrage, by giving all a share in the control of the government, makes it mandatory for every man to become a statesman. No wonder if most find themselves in no position to discharge the responsibility laid upon them. The effect is the prevalence, in all parts of society, of the dispositions which are known to characterize the tyrannical ruler - frivolity, arbitrariness, the blindness of passion. PDG 78

Although moral goodness and badness admit of innumerable degrees, the division of men into the morally good and the morally bad makes sense. It may be difficult to say who is a good man, just as it happens to be hard to say who is a good musician; but, just as it is possible to define the good musician and often to recognize him, so it is possible to define and often to recognize the good man, i.e. the man who is good not (or not only) as a flute-player or as a shoemaker, etc., but, absolutely speaking, as a man. The definition of the good man is frightfully exacting, for goodness implies achievement, accomplishment, completeness, totality, integrality, plenitude; goodness demands much - in a way, it demands all - but evil consists in privation and is completely brought into existence by any privation. Thus health implies the good functioning of all organs, but the malfunctioning of one organ suffices to cause disease and death. One single vice causes a man to be bad; a man is not good unless he possesses all the virtues. The answer of experience is unmistakable: the least that can be said is that we have no experience of a world in which the ethically good outnumber the ethically bad. PDG 80-81

Why is the claim restricted to a few? First the "statistical" argument as Simon calls it -- experience reveals that the occurrence of such virtue is rare; the very terms, outstanding ability, unusual achievement suggests that it is not so frequent. More common is to find people led by passion and self interest; or at least not fully developed in the requisite virtue. Is there not a natural inequality that can never be covered over - the inequality of intelligence and achievement? Second is the "sociological" argument -- virtue requires training and education; education requires leisure and a certain freedom from necessity; leisure and freedom requires a certain kind of wealth (not necessarily that of the businessman) such wealth is had by few. Here we have the claim of virtue translated into political aristocracy, a distinct social class which allows virtue to be bred and developed (see Simon p. 94). It is a compelling idea but often obscured by a romanticism. The Romantic argument is that the aristocratic class pursues lofty purposes and easily renders disinterested service. Again, Simon devastates such a notion:

In social mythology the cheerful picture of the virtuous people is balanced by the description of the propertied class as an elite dedicated to lofty pursuits - above all, to the disinterested service of society. In this connection, also, the catastrophes of the twentieth century have proved instructive. They have taught us a great deal about the weak points of the upper class: the lack of realism, the hedonistic isolation from common suffering and common anxiety, the lack of a sense of history and the meaning of the present, frivolity and conceit, a readiness to make alliances with the worst elements of the rabble. Germany was delivered to Hitler by Franz von Papen - this will not be effaced from the pages of history. Most shocking of all was the realization that men describable as virtuous could become the accomplices of atrocious crimes in such a cloud of confusion that nobody knew - not even those involved - whether they were victims of monstrous illusions or had actually surrendered to evil. Together with a few progressive myths, this essentially conservative myth of the upper class has been disposed of by horrid experience. PDG 93

The basic problem with the argument for the claim of virtue is that the claim of virtue cannot be made absolute: -- the claim of virtue cannot be identified with the claims of the virtuous. (See Harry Jaffa). The core of political justice is equality. Political rule is over equals and peers. Politics does have a democratic bent, according to Aristotle. At least insofar as we have civil rights. If the claim of virtue is made absolute then why not a king? Rule by outstanding man. Then political rule properly disappears. There is also the danger that power breeds arrogance and an isolation from the people as a whole. Men of virtue should at least consider popular consent. Again see Simon on the detachment of the elites (95,98, 215-221). Finally, an argument can be made which breaks the link of virtue with the few. The many as a group can muster together virtue (and wisdom?). Here is a central political question/problem - can virtue be combined with numbers? In a democracy - universal education serves as an ideal so we have rule by enlightened people, or as Strauss says in "What is Liberal Education," we must form a "mass aristocracy" by way of education. A daunting challenge. Tocqueville believes that only intermediaire associations can perform such a task and in political doctrine at least "self interest properly understood" is a simulacrum of virtue.


Who are the many? The hoi polloi. The many are the poor; it is a term of deprivation, i.e. those who have no claim but their sheer numbers, the strength of number (see Simon 97-102) . They have no distinction due to virtue, wealth, or expertise. But they can fight for their freedom. Why should the many rule? First, statistical mediocrity is a blessing in disguise. The many are less apt to show great wickedness and vice (Tocqueville comments that democracy doesn't really know what vice is, compared to aristocratic depravity!) Aristotle argues that the many are like diluted water - not superb, not vile (p. 142, 1285b 20). In the second place there is a social argument (see Simon p. 84)- the many as a group can be virtuous and wise. Thus together as an assembly the many exhibit virtue and wisdom, so they should be brought in on deliberative functions; Aristotle gives this analogy - a feast with many contributors (see III.11). A pot luck dinner can be very fine. Also think of criticism of art with many perspectives; after a show many friends can discuss and discover many things, without waiting for an expert like Roger Ebert. Also consider the weakness of the claim for the few virtuous mentioned above. The experts do not have the only say -- those who use the product have a say - does the shoe pinch? Only the wearer can say. Hence, at least the many need to check the power of the experts by way of consent. Aristotle mentions examining holders of office at the end of their tenure. Simon says:

And yet it is true that in a group describable as the upper part of society a comparatively high rate of excellence is found. Society endeavored to place able persons in leading positions; it does not always fail; in so far as its effort is not frustrated, the frequency of merit is greater in the upper class than elsewhere. Society is entitled to expect particular service of this section of its membership where the ratio of excellence is particularly high. By giving each citizen equal power in the decisive act of selecting the governing personnel, democracy seems to deprive excellence of the weight that it should possess in order for society to be properly served by its best members. Regardless of their good will and desire to serve, men of skill and men of wisdom are restricted by the equalitarian law which, on election day, holds their ballot equal to that of any person not legally declared insane or criminal. PDG 93-94

Simon formulates and rejects the romantic argument for the many; in this claim the poor, the masses, are inherently just and virtuous and the few are inherently unjust and wicked. Such a claim of course is the height of folly and justifies terror and revolution. This is an old idea going back at least to Rousseau, that father of romanticism - glorify the noble savage and the simple peasant while denouncing the corruptions of civilization and technology. Also in Marx we find it - the proletariat is inherently just by being so deprived, capitalists are wicked and corrupt; even Hitler used this perverse argument -- German people, Volk, are nobles; rich Jews are evil.

Can the claim of the many be absolutized? No of course not (see Simon 88, 96, 219). The tyranny of the majority is greatly to be feared. Study Tocqueville on this issue. Shall we have numbers determine what is true and right (take a poll!)? Such is a recipe for mediocrity or worse. The ancients feared the danger of mob passion - a "herd of beasts" (p. 124). The people can be brutalized, corrupted and moved by hatred, enthusiasm, fear etc. Strength alone is the claim of a tyrant (By Zeus, the sovereign declares it). What of minority rights? - ostracism - violence (purge?) So there must be checks on their claim. After all how much wisdom and virtue can really be expected from the masses? i.e. even at their best? Should many rule over all matters and go beyond electing and examining magistrates? Then the execution of law would be impossible and deliberation hampered. In fact, how much unity does the many have? Would they not end up in faction and anarchy? Aristotle thought the many would be self-devouring and non-productive. There cannot be a regime consisting of people without means. Expropriation of wealth can be unjust (c. 10). And finally, if the point of regime is the good life, must we banish outstanding men, as ancient democracies often did?


The wealthy make a fundamental and major contribution to existence of society - necessities, jobs, taxes ("could a state be composed of men without means?" (see III.12) The wealthy have something at stake - and may therefore be more prudent. Thus some have argued that property qualifications are not a complete sham. For property owners may be more reliable in contracts and money making takes certain excellence (III.13) Finally, money is a condition for other achievements, such as education and leisure. (p. 50) But against the claim of wealth we must consider the following points. The claim of wealth is very divisive - why disenfranchise the many who become potential enemies (p. 125)? Justice is based upon a notion of the common good- not just private gain. Their contribution is very limited and partial - there is more to a polis than wealth (c. 9) -i.e. good life and justice. Politics is for the good life, not mere life. Wealth is a private interest and should not overtake public, common good. Can the wealthy really show prudence and discern the true justice and common good; can they judge impartially? What is beauty or wealth to choosing a good flute players?


At the end of the day the various claims to rule are Incommensurables - The good statesman must balance the claims - an act requiring great moderation and prudence. This balance becomes the major political problem - immoderate claims breed extremes and divide the polis. Such instability asks for civil war, violence and loss of freedom. The claims should be balanced in the form of a mixed regime, POLITY, as we shall argue in the next lesson. As Jaffa observes because the claims are somewhat incommensurate -- like apples and oranges -- no simple formula can be given - only prudence can judge such things, i.e. how to mix the claims for this people and now. There will always be a certain disproportion -(between necessity and freedom), (or life and good life). Jaffa further observes that the former (necessity and mere life) should not overcome the latter (freedom and the good life); the latter should not undermine former. Politics must mix quantity - wealth and strength (free birth -- numbers) with quality - virtue. Hence the brutal and fine sides of politics. If "quantity" (numbers and money, the many and the rich) gets upper hand - then there results a brutality; yet if "quality" gets overrated (claims of virtue) then we get foolishness and misguided highmindedness. The great task is to "refine" the claims of wealth/numbers with appeal to virtue. Appeal to the best possible. Politics is the art of the possible.


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