The Aristotelian “State” and the Modern “State”

Aristotle’s understanding of politics is founded on the distinction between the polis (city) and the politeia (constitution, regime). The politeia describes not just a written document (a constitution as we understand it), but the whole character of a society which is determined by the personal views of its leaders, the politeuma. The politeia “belongs” to the politeuma because the latter are the ones who shape the former’s concerns and its goals. The leaders essentially create a people’s civic character in accordance with the principles and goals of the particular type of regime.

Aristotle recognized three basic forms of government corresponding to the only logical options: government by the One, government by the Few, and government by the Many. Government by the One is monarchy, or kingship. Government by the Few is aristocracy, or rule by a small number of virtuous men. Government by the Many is democracy (Aristotle actually uses the term “polity” for what we call “democracy.”) Corresponding to these three forms of government, Aristotle delineated three perversions: monarchy devolves into tyranny, aristocracy devolves into oligarchy, and democracy devolves into mob rule. But in all of these cases, government is essentially a personal phenomenon, not a bureaucratic one (as we have today).

Thus in Aristotle, what we call “the state” is not an impersonal abstraction which stands above and outside of partisan interests and which remains after one leader is gone and awaits a new one to take up its impersonal reins. Rather, in Aristotle, what we call “the state” is fundamentally partisan and personal, and is necessarily changed when new leaders come to power (hence, the long discussions in the Politics of the fundamentally different societies created by monarchies, democracies, and oligarchies).

Many politics scholars today think that this usage of “state” and “politics” prevailed from classical antiquity through the Middle Ages, and was changed into the form we recognize today by Machiavelli. Sometimes discussions of the Middle Ages are confusing because the Latin equivalents of polis / politeia, which are civitas / respublica or politia, are often both rendered by the English term “state.” The word status in Latin, “state,” actually means “condition,” and in Medieval usage has to always have a modifier – e.g., status ecclesiae (the condition / state of the Church) or status regni (the condition / state of the kingdom).

In Thomas Aquinas’ commentary on Aristotle’s Politics, for instance, the word oligarchy becomes status paucorum (the condition / state of the few), while the word democratia becomes status popularis (the condition / state of the people). The politia is said to be the ordo dominantum, or the order of the body of rulers in the society, but this itself is also fundamentally connected to the condition or way of life that is pursued in the society (Aquinas’ commentary III.6)

So, as with Aristotle, in the Medieval world, “state” meant the welfare of a body, not an entity possessing effective power over a particular domain, as in the Modern sense of “state.” The Modern understanding of “state” comes about when the word “state” comes to refer to an impersonal and abstract power to do things (wieldable by any type of person) connected to a particular body of territory. And, following Machiavelli, the state in this sense is fundamentally disconnected from ethical concerns. The mere ability of the leadership to wield power replaces the development by them of habits of virtue in the people, and the result is an impersonal, bureaucratic system of government that has no connection to any objective concept of the True, the Good, or the Beautiful.

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