Many famous philosophers presented theories envisioning how primordial authority structure and ancient governments might have formed at the dawn of civilization. From absolute divine mandates of power, to carefully-negotiated social contracts between leaders and the masses, the philosophers had varying opinions on the origins and nature of governments and their right to rule. The famous Greek philosopher, Aristotle (384-322 BCE), fell into the social contract category, particularly the camp of social contract philosophers who believed that the earliest humans decided of their own volition to give power to a leader of their choice.
As was often the case in Aristotle’s philosophy, virtue played a major role. Envisioning the civilizations of primordial days, Aristotle postulated in his text, The Politics, that early peoples chose as their kings the most virtuous and talented people from among the community. When civilization evolved and kingdoms expanded, allowing multiple extraordinary people to coexist in a kingdom at the same time, the communities (according to Aristotle) now transitioned to a proto-democracy which was designed so that the wise people could be leaders together. On this, Aristotle wrote, “An especial function of good men is to confer benefits, and it was in recognition of the benefits that they had conferred that men were appointed to be kings. Then, when a large number of men of similar virtue became available, people no longer tolerated one-man rule but looked for something communal, and set up a constitution” (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker number 1286b). These proto-democracies that Aristotle imagined, however, did not remain harmonious for long.
According to Aristotle’s theory of government origin, the proto-democracies eventually became unbalanced as the members of the government began to turn away from virtue and instead became self-centeredly focused on enriching themselves. Honest and virtuous leaders still existed in the proto-democracy, but they were soon overpowered by the wealth and machinations of their corrupted peers. This victory of a greedy few over the preexisting assembly of virtuous leaders is what led, according to the philosopher, to the birth of oligarchies. Aristotle commented on this envisioned transition, writing, “the good men did not remain good: they began to make money out of that which was the common property of all. And to some such development we may plausibly ascribe the origin of oligarchies, since men made wealth a thing of honour” (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker number 1286b). With the triumph of wealth and power over virtue, the political struggle for ultimate control was just beginning.
In Aristotle’s philosophical model of government origin, the unstable oligarchies released a wave of intrigue and bloodshed that was caused by oligarchs trying to leverage their wealth and power in order to gain control over their fellow oligarchs. When a particular oligarch succeeded in subjugating his powerful peers, the government became a tyranny, led by a dictatorial tyrant. Yet, as oligarchs and tyrants battled among themselves, they reduced each other’s power and simultaneously stoked the ire of the masses, paving the way for the eventual resurgence of democracy. Aristotle wrote, “the next change was to tyrannies, and from tyrannies to democracy. For the struggle to get rich at all cost tended to reduce numbers, and so increased the power of the multitude, who rose up and formed democracies” (Aristotle, Politics, Bekker number 1286b). Such was Aristotle’s vision of civilization’s progress from tribes, to kingdoms, to proto-democracies, to oligarchies and tyrants, and finally back to democracy. It should be reiterated that Aristotle was a philosopher and that the Politics was a philosophical text. His outline of civilization’s progress was more of a social commentary than an attempt at history.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Oedipus Going Into Exile From Thebes, By Henri Augustin Gambard (c. 1819–1882), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons, Artvee, and the Detroit Institute of Arts).
- The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.