An Overview of Aristotle’s Account of Tyranny

This paper will discuss Aristotle’s account of tyranny, focusing on the questions as why the Philosopher finds it necessary to discuss the possibility of the preservation of tyranny, and what his views on these matters indicate about the nature of political life.

The Nature of Tyranny and the Character of the Tyrant

Aristotle considers tyranny to be either a false regime or else among the worst of all regimes (1266a1-2; 1289b1).:”(Unless otherwise indicated in the text, all Bekker citation numbers are from the Politics. “NE” stands for the Nicomachean Ethics.)”: His theory of tyranny begins with his understanding of correct and errant constitutions. Correct regimes “according to what is unqualifiedly just” are ones “which look to the common advantage,” while errant regimes are ones “which look only to the advantage of the rulers” (1279a16-20). The errant forms are organically related to the correct ones in the sense of being deviations from them. Regimes fall into classifications based on whether they are governed by the One, the Few, or the Many (1279a25). The correct form of government by One is monarchy, of government by Few, aristocracy, and of government by Many, polity (1279a33-39). Likewise, the errant form of government by One is tyranny, of government by Few, oligarchy, and of government by Many, democracy (1279b4-10).

For Aristotle, tyranny is a deviant form of rule by the One. It is equivalent to “monarchic rule of a master over the political partnership” (1279b16), which is to say that it is similar, if not equivalent to, the master-slave relationship. “[T]yranny is composed of the ultimate sort of oligarchy and of democracy…[it is] composed of two bad regimes and involves the deviations and errors of both of them” (1310b5). In addition to tyranny per se, the rule of one deviant man, Aristotle recognizes a sub-type of tyranny, namely, an extreme democracy. This is a mass of people which, becoming a collective monarch not ruled by law but, via mere decrees, acts as a master over a slave (1292a5-20). This eclipses law, for law is “intellect without appetite” (1287a31) but a mob acting apart from law is like a herd of beasts following appetite (1281b18).

For Aristotle, tyranny is an unnatural condition (1287b38). It strikes at the final end of man, the state of living well (NE 1097a35-1097b5). This state of human good is the soul’s virtuous activity in a complete and self-sufficient life (NE 1097b22-1098a19). This, in turn, refers to the contemplative life, which, through leisure and independence, fully exercises the most divine quality in man, reason (NE 1177b19-1178a8). Tyranny is unnatural because it strikes at the chief end of man, which requires free association with equals for the purpose of seeking the good life through deliberation about the just and the unjust (1253a8-15). Without rational deliberation about the just and the unjust between free and equal persons, there is no political life. Without political life – that is, without the polis and without justice – man would be merely “injustice armed” (1253a30-35).

Moving on, the character of the tyrant is that of a man who carries out his will by force, subverting justice and the polis (1281a22). He may be (and often has been) a mere demagogue who has gotten control of the military and exploits class rivalries (1305a15-27). His goal is pleasure, not nobility (1311a4), and he is more interested in amassing wealth, which he needs for his own protection, than in justly governing his subjects (1311a8). He is a distrustful man who encourages citizens to spy on each other, wraps his people up in daily affairs so they do not have time to oppose him. He panders to women and slaves, surrounds himself with flatterers, discourages excellence in others, breeds distrust among his subjects, and attempts to render them incapable of resistance (1313b10-1314a24). Tyrants can be of three basic types, the elected monarch, the dictator, and the absolute monarchy where the monarch is of equal quality to his subjects. Their seeming diversity notwithstanding, each type amounts to a master of slaves, ordering things according to his own will, not according to law or consent (1295a7-24).

Yet, for all this, there are times when Aristotle thinks it is justified to preserve tyranny. To that topic I now turn. I will argue two reasons why Aristotle finds it necessary to discuss preserving tyranny: (1) his interest in stability as a necessary factor for man achieving his final end gives him a low view of forcibly changing regimes, even tyrannies, and (2) his concepts of ethics and justice require him to explore all the facets of a particular issue, which necessitates examining closely the relations between monarchy (a correct form of government) and tyranny (a deviant form of government).

(1) The Preservation of Tyranny and the Final End of Man

Aristotle is very interested in factors which contribute to man’s development and successful attainment of his final end. The destruction of regimes, particularly by revolution, works against this goal. For instance, after a revolution the identity of “citizens” and the responsibilities of people for contracts become unsure, and this makes working for the common advantage more difficult (1276a6-15). Man is a “political animal,” and his final end is “living well” in and with a community of free and equal people who rationally deliberate about the just and the unjust (1253a1-18). On this view, revolution subverts a community and (potentially) returns men to the condition of “isolated piece[s] in a game of chess” (1253a7), lacking law and being “injustice armed” (1253a33). Hence, revolution is a disordered thing.

The goal of politics is to find out what the best regime is, both ideally and actually, and so study of all regimes, including the “anti-regime” of tyranny, and study of the causes of their destruction and preservation is called for (1288b10-40). Men should live with their attention on the regime, and this should not be viewed as slavery but preservation (1310a35). Here this means preservation of the individual citizen’s life, but what is true of the citizen (the part) is surely also true of the whole (the regime). Not all constitutions are created equal, and both citizenship and the virtue of citizens are relative to particular constitutions (1276b16-32). Nevertheless, despite variations, the common goal of all who are citizens is “preservation of the partnership” (1276b28).

Now it may perhaps at first appear that tyranny is not a “partnership,” since it is the rule of a man who seeks his own advantage at the expense of the common advantage (1295a20). However, Aristotle takes some pains to point out that tyranny is actually a partnership, if only a limited one. In a tyranny per se, women and slaves are complicit with the tyrant because under him they prosper. Similarly, anyone who is given to flattery or other forms of base behavior supports a tyrant (1313b33-1314a5). In a situation of extreme democracy, which approximates a tyranny (1292a1-20), there is an unspoken partnership between the mob itself and the demagogue who panders to the mob. This type of democracy becomes, over time, a full-fledged tyranny (1305a8-10).

What emerges from these considerations is that even though (1) the duty of the citizen is to preserve the partnership-constitution, and (2) there is a partnership of sorts between the tyrant and his subjects, at the end of the day (3) this is a disordered partnership that prevents the truly political life. By short-circuiting man’s journey towards his final end, “living well,” the tyranny subverts nature and reason.

(2) The Preservation of Tyranny and the Pursuit of Justice

Aristotle also talks of the preservation of tyranny in connection with his view of ethics and justice. As he sees it, revolution always comes about because of disputes about justice – particularly, disputes about equality and inequality (1301b26). Different regimes think of justice differently (1280a8-11; 1309a37), and ungoverned disputes between their partisans about what is just can bring about changes in regimes. Although he does not consider tyranny to be a true constitution, three factors seem to require him to give it, and causes of its preservation, special consideration. First, monarchy is one of the three correct types of constitution (1279a28), while tyranny, its natural deviation, is the worst (1289b1). Aristotle does not like to leave either side of a coin unremarked upon. Second, he admits the possible existence of a man of superior virtue who must, because of this quality, be given an absolute kingship lest injustice prevail (1284b25-34). Since politics is a comprehensive art (1288b1-34), how this sort of man and his rule would differ from a tyrant and his rule seems to be a necessary clarification. Third, since tyranny is the deviation to which monarchy is naturally prone, a detailed discussion of tyranny should better illuminate and distinguish kingship as a correct constitution.

It is important to understand from the discussion of tyranny and the tyrant (above) that tyranny is a mode of government which produces unethical behavior in its citizens. Recalling that Aristotle holds kingship and tyranny to be flipsides of the same coin, he analyzes the aims of revolts against both kings and tyrants as consisting of the same types of behavior. These include avarice for the tyrant’s possessions, anger at being insulted and an attendant desire for revenge, sexual deviancy, fear, contempt, and desire for glory (1311a21-39). These causes fall into two modes of actuality, external (1312a40) and internal (1312b8), but all would seem to involve either ethical defects or excesses and therefore to militate against the life of virtue often described as the “Golden Mean” (NE 1106b15-27). Men who are acting against virtue are prone to act unjustly (cf. NE 1130a16-21), and so these types of aims for revolt against tyranny would seem to be just as bad as the tyranny itself.

These ethical considerations form the backdrop for Aristotle’s discussion of the preservation of tyranny relative to the attainment of justice. He sees two ways of preserving tyrannies. One of these, in which the tyrant “guard[s] against anything that customarily gives rise to two things, high thoughts and trust,” leads to the maintenance of vice (1313a33-1314a29). The other, to moderate the tyrant so that “he should appear to the ruled not as a tyrannical sort but as a manager and kingly sort, not as an appropriator [of the things of others] but as a steward,” leads to the modification of the tyranny in the direction of monarchy (1315a40-1315b10). By so turning the deviant form toward the correct form, it follows that the tyrant “will either be in a state that is fine in relation to virtue or he will be half-decent – not vicious but half-vicious” (1315b9-10). This, in turn, will preserve his reign and make it seem nobler. Further, Aristotle strongly implies that it will make the tyranny more closely approximate ethical goodness and justice, and therefore perhaps be able to contribute something toward the attainment of man’s end.

Conclusion

The foregoing exposition of Aristotle’s understanding of tyranny indicates that the political life, being the activity of free and equal people who all possess, to varying degrees, the ability to exercise the divine quality of reason (NE 1177b30-1178a8), is inherently fraught with danger and cannot be an exact science. Ethics is at best an inexact science (cf. NE 1112b30-1113a3), and since Aristotle considers it to be the foundation of politics (NE 1094a18-1094b10, and 1181b12-23) this means politics as well is an inexact science. Just as different types of soil nourish seeds in different ways, producing plants of differing qualities, the varying dispositions of men and women affect how they receive and implement ethical training (cf. NE 1179b20-30). It seems to me, then, that Aristotle presents political life as a sort of “school for virtue,” a comprehensive training program for the good life which, although always on the horizon, perhaps cannot ever be fully realized by anyone who is not a god (cf. NE 1178a31-1178a1).


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