Law and Justice – Economic Justice in Early Greece – 4.4 Aristotle and Constitutional Analysis
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Law and Justice – Economic Justice in Early Greece – 4.4 Aristotle and Constitutional Analysis

October 24, 2019


>>>>The great Greek political philosopher
Aristotle, whose “Politics” and “Ethics” two of his most important works we’ve been discussing,
was in some sense the founder of constitutional analysis. He analyzes the nature of political
societies and provides a scientific basis for the consideration of constitutions. The
Greek world is politeia. It means way of life almost, constitution, set of laws, set of
orders, way of, way of ordering political life. And one way to think of the nature of
constitutions is this: think of there being two levels, two orders of law. There are the
set of laws that govern a society, the rules which are enforced by the state, but there
are a second order of laws. These are rules for making the rules. That second order of
lawmaking, those are constitutional laws. And in our own society, in the United States,
our constitution is the governing document that constitutes the federal government in
it’s various branches, limits its power say, in the Bill of Rights, and those are rules
for making rules. And the federal government through its various mechanisms then makes
the rules that we consider our laws. Now Aristotle is the first thinker to provide an insightful
analysis of the nature of constitutional law, the nature of laws which govern how laws are
made. And Aristotle’s constitutional analysis is fundamental and it’s worth exploring in
a little detail. Aristotle says that there are basically three ways of organizing power.
Now these aren’t ideal types, they’re not perfect models, but they’re three fundamentally
different ways to think about how power is organized in a society. He says there’s rule
by one, there’s rule by a few, and there’s rule by many. And it’s kind of simple, but
it’s a powerful and insightful way of thinking about analyzing the nature of political institutions.
Rule by one, Aristotle says, has two forms: it can either by correct or it can be deviant.
And Aristotle says this is true of each of these three kinds of constitution, that there’s
a correct form and a deviant form. And when he says it’s a correct form, he means that
it’s the rule for the interests of the public, that it’s rule for the common good. And when
it’s a deviant form that it’s a rule for one’s narrow interest, that it’s a rule for the
governing’s interest – whoever that is. And so Aristotle says when there’s rule by one
and that is for the common good, that’s called a monarchy. It’s a monarchical institution,
which invests primary executive and legislative and even judicial authority in a single individual:
a monarch, which means “rule by one” in Greek. When there’s a deviant rule by one, it’s called
a tyranny. And again that’s a Greek word and it fundamentally reflects the long influence
of Greek thought on political science. And so Aristotle says rule by many can– rule
by one can be monarchy or it can be tyranny. Rule by the few, Aristotle says, can either
be correct, in which case it’s an aristocracy, which means in Greek “rule by the best”. And
when it’s a deviant rule by the few that’s called an oligarchy, a rule by the few in
their own interests. And so the rule by the few can either be the rule by those who are
best and will guide the state wisely in the common interest or deviant, those who rule
for their own gain. Finally, he says constitutions can be organized so that the rule is held
by many. And when this works well, when it’s a correct constitution, it’s called a polity,
Aristotle says. And when it’s deviant, when you have a deviant set of rule by the many,
Aristotle says that is called democracy. And in fact in Aristotle’s schema the word democracy
has negative connotations, and in fact through much of human history democracy has negative
connotations. And it’s interesting to read Aristotle’s analysis and to realize that a
deviant form of rule by the many is called democracy. This is when the people, the common
people, rule in their own interest. That is, they try to transfer the property from the
wealthy to themselves, not in the common interest but in their own interest. But Aristotle does
allow that there can be a good form of rule by the many, he just calls it polity. Now,
these political categories, these kinds of constitutions, are outlined by Aristotle and
we’ll see in future lessons that he’s one of the first great political scientists, that
is that he’s an empirical scientist. He studies the actual practices and institutions of the
Greek world. And in fact it’s thanks to Aristotle’s empirical study that we know so much about
one of the principle exemplars of ancient democracy, the city of Athens. Because either
Aristotle or one of his students wrote a work called “The Constitution of the Athenians”,
which described in detail the nature of their democratic organization of power.

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