Aristotle On Democracy Essay Example

In sections 3.9-3.13 of his magnum opus Politics, Aristotle puts forward several arguments for democracy within the larger context of his political theorizing.  Although Aristotle has some reservations about the democratic system and a few of its implications, he assigns democracy a crucial role in achieving the good of the state and the common interest of the citizens.  In the following essay I will outline Aristotle’s discussion of democracy and focus specifically on his arguments therein.  Following this I will conclude with a short assessment of these arguments in which I put forward a mitigated acceptance of Aristotle’s position. 

Aristotle begins his discussion on democracy by pointing out the flaws in the common conception of justice found in other forms of government.  For many individuals, justice is seen as equality among equals (such as equality among the rich in an oligarchy) that allows for inequality among those of unequal status.  Aristotle criticizes such a conception for not only coming from the limitations of man’s own judgment, but also for its unnecessary universalizing tendencies: “one party, if they are unequal in one respect, for example wealth, consider themselves to be unequal in all” (Politics 1280.23).  Instead, Aristotle points out that justice comes through equal relations of citizens and proper distribution of goods.  Tyranny certainly does not ensure this and oligarchy focuses too much on property; however, for Aristotle, the state should exist in order to encourage the good life—a life in which citizens pursue the good together.  Mere economic alliances meant to ensure good business or Hobbesian social contracts meant to ensure security are too loose in their bonds.  Aristotle demands more: “political society exists for the sake of noble actions” (Politics 1281.2).

With this view of the purpose of the state, Aristotle moves to explicate the benefits of democracy.  Neither a government of confiscation or tyranny are fully just insofar as they both lead citizens to suffer unnecessarily.  Likewise, an oligarchy that allows only “good” individuals to rule cannot be the best system, for not only does the segregation of “good” from “bad” create dishonor among the excluded majority, but one man or a small group of men are far more susceptible to allow unhealthy passions to dictate their ruling decisions.  Democracy, argues Aristotle, offers a better alternative to these insofar as the many, comprised of individuals, are more likely to rule rightly.  As individuals their ruling power is limited, but when they meet they form a collective that brings far greater benefit to the state.  In this Aristotle relates democracy to a feast in which the contribution of many proves “better than a dinner provided out of a single purse” (Politics 1281.3).  Not only do the many have far more to contribute as far as talents and abilities, but the collective also becomes a better judge of aesthetics and judicial matters.  In other words, even though a specific element of a specific individual may be more perfect than the average element provided by the collective, the “scattered elements combined” (Politics 1281.13) make for a better whole in general.  Including the poor into such an agreement may have its risks, such as corruption or embezzlement, but overall the mixing of the citizenry promises to create greater unity and less state enemies.

Nevertheless, democracy is not without its problems.  One of the biggest issues Aristotle faces is the problem of expertise.  In a democracy where all individuals are given equal respect, there is often a tendency towards levelling, in which expertise is divided among individuals who lack proper skills.  When it comes to the areas of health or geometry, for example, those who function best are those trained as physicians and geometricians.  In a similar way, Aristotle asks whether or not those who have the responsibility for running a state or participating in elections should be restricted to the politicians that understand the craft of politics.  To this objection, Aristotle argues that, although a single individual may be far worse than a person of expertise in a specific field, when taken collectively in a democratic body, the many in fact function better in all governmental posts than the individual would.  This is consistent with Aristotle’s conviction that the many should have greater authority than the few.  Power lies in the court and its laws— never in the individual—and when these laws are good they are supreme in the state.

However, elevation of good laws as supreme demands the question of what is considered a good law.  In this Aristotle returns to his teleological framework and argues that since the telos of any science or art is the greatest good, the greatest good in a state should also be the end toward which politics aims.  For a democratic state, the greatest good is the common interest of its citizens, which itself is coined in terms of equality.  The equal state should not determine which citizens get the greatest benefits based on background, but on abilities and excellence.  For example, Aristotle argues that flute players should not be given the best flutes based on aristocratic ties, but rather on the excellence of the players’ performance with the flute.  For Aristotle, laws that emphasize equality and reward for excellence help the democratic state toward bettering the common interest and therefore are good laws.  However, he also points out that in a state that promotes the good, virtue must have a superior position.

Virtue is crucial to help determine how rulers should rule the democratic state.  Different groups and classes of society have differing values and descriptions of what makes good leaders within their own circles, but Aristotle notes that when all of these classes are joined in the unified democratic state, it is no longer these relative standards that are most important, but virtue.  Here, at the end of his argument in this section, Aristotle makes clear the unity of equality and virtue: “Now what is just or right is to be interpreted in the sense of ‘what is equal’; and that which is right in the sense of being equal is to be considered with reference to the advantage of the state, and the common good of the citizens.  [I]n the best state [a citizen] is one who is able and willing to be governed and to govern with a view to the life of virtue” (Politics 1283.40-1284.2).  Democracy according to Aristotle should always pursue the common interest, and in this definition, the common interest will always include the equal pursuit of virtue.

Aristotle’s arguments for democracy are convincing in one respect; however, his specific Greek world-view colors his position enough to warrant mitigated acceptance.  On the one hand I find convincing the principles behind Aristotle’s approval of democracy.  Plato, in his Republic argues that in a context of vice, monarchy or oligarchy would be the worst form of government and democracy would be the best.  It seems that Aristotle works with a similar assumption: if people act out of evil or uncontrolled passion, the collective group will often (but not always) express itself in less extreme forms.  History has confirmed this idea in that the American democracy has acted in a less evil fashion than most, if not all historical dictatorships.  However, Aristotle’s assumption about the positive functions of the collective, namely that it will better purse constructive actions, be more equipped and more impartial also strikes me as correct in that individuals have far more bias with respect to justice and far fewer skills or talents than groups.  On the other hand, I have difficulty accepting Aristotle’s notion of a virtuous democracy.  I appreciate the concept of virtue with respect to character formation in the individual, but with respect to the goal of democracy the notion of virtue put forward by Aristotle is far too Greek to have successful applicability in a modern pluralistic postmodern democracy.  Whereas individuals must certainly contribute their moral opinions to the ruling of the state, virtue coined in Aristotle’s terms is far too specific to allow for equal democratic participation today.  The state should never try to make people good, but instead should offer a libertarian space in which individuals can foster such goodness themselves.  Because Aristotle’s description of democracy is not as applicable today as it was in 4th century Greece, I can only accept it in partial; nevertheless, Aristotle’s desire that honor and equality be given to citizens in order to facilitate their pursuit of goodness demands our attention and continued interaction.


Aristotle. (1941). Politics. (Trans. Benjamin Jowett). New York: Random House.

Aristotle Vs. Plato On Metaphysics


Metaphysics pertains to the branch of philosophy which studies the ultimate reality. The term originated in ancient times as an editor’s designation for some of Aristotle’s writings. Aristotle had called these writings First Philosophy. The editor designated this treatise Metaphysics (“after the physics”) because he placed it in his edition after Aristotle’s writings on external nature, which were called Physics. In his First Philosophy Aristotle discussed causality (the relationship between cause and effect), the nature of being, potentiality and actuality, the existence of God, and related subjects. Traditionally, these topics form the content of metaphysics.

In general, metaphysics deals mainly with reality that cannot be seen, heard, felt, etc. Philosophers use various methods to try to understand this world beyond the senses. Some employ reason and logic; some, intuition (direct and unreasoning perception). Others use experience, or sense perception.

Some philosophers divide metaphysics into ontology, which seeks to explain the nature of being, or reality; and epistemology, which deals with theories of human knowledge. Some philosophers limit metaphysics to ontology alone, while others broaden the field to include cosmology, which deals with theories of the origin and structure of the universe as an orderly system.

Thesis Statement: This paper scrutinizes and compares Aristotle and Plato on metaphysics.



Plato had no philosophy in the sense of a fixed and supposedly all-embracing system which he first constructed, then completed, and finally defended to the end of his life. He was constantly questioning and criticizing. Some of the dialogues seem to reach no conclusion at all, and others are so tentative in tone as to elicit more confusion and doubt from certain readers. All through the ages such readers have interpreted this critical spirit, so manifest in the Platonic writings, as an all-consuming skepticism. But this conclusion cannot be reconciled with other features of the literature (Russell, 2005).

Certain concepts and certain doctrines are never abandoned, though often refined and modified. In this concluding section it may be possible to suggest some of those doctrines which may be regarded as conclusions of Plato himself and, therefore, as basic to genuine Platonism. In attempting to do this, we shall follow the traditional division of philosophy into ethics, the theory of reason, and the theory of nature, which itself emerged in the early Platonic schools as a result of studying the dialogues.

Ethics. Plato wrote his dialogues for one purpose, to help men understand the nature o the good life, and to goad them into actually living it. He called this life “the imitation of God.” That his major aim was a moral or practical one is indicated not only by the Seventh Epistle but by the fact that the crowning works of his youth and old age, the Republic and the Laws, were both primarily concerned with practical matters (Harte, 2005).  The Platonic ethics includes the following principles:

All men seek the good by nature. All things have an inherent tendency to enhance and to perfect the existence with which they are originally endowed. Man is no exception to this rule (Harte, 2005). When the soul fulfils this natural tendency its well-functioning is called virtue, as, when the body functions well in accordance with nature, the condition is called health. This conception, later called natural law, is fundamental to the whole Platonic ethics.

Virtue is knowledge. Like art, virtue cannot be obtained automatically or by mere luck. Men cannot act well without knowing what they are doing, why, and how to do it. The source of all virtue is knowledge, not merely an abstract, theoretical knowledge, but a concrete, practical knowledge (not excluding theory), like that of the skilled craftsman who knows what he is making and how to make it (Russell, 2005).

The most vicious acts are done involuntarily, or against the will, in the sense that they obstruct its basic, natural tendency to what is good. He who commits such acts is in worse state than he who knows the good and wills it but is overcome by passion or accident. The former cannot help doing evil, for his guiding faculties are corrupted. He thinks that he knows what he does not know, and thinks that he wills what he does not will, i.e. the good (Russell, 2005).

The four chief virtues of the soul are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Wisdom alone can guide action to its natural end; justice renders to each thing its due according to genuine need and capacity as understood by reason; courage persists in wise and just action whatever obstacles may arise; and temperance is the harmony of all the various parts of the soul in agreement with reason (Russell, 2005).

Pleasure as such is neither good nor bad. There are virtuous pleasures as well as vicious pleasures, but virtuous pleasures that attend rational action, since they are in accordance with nature, are far more satisfying than vicious ones.

Hence there is no natural conflict between the real duty and the real interest of man. Duty and interest ultimately coincide. What we ought to do is really and thoroughly to be what we are. In the long run this is more satisfying and pleasant than to violate and thwart our nature by vicious and irrational acts (Harte, 2005).

Man is a social animal by nature. He cannot satisfy even the most elementary needs without the co-operation of his fellow men. These elementary needs fall into three major groups requiring that three major social functions be performed in any human community: that of acquiring and preserving knowledge, that of active political service, and that of producing material artifacts required for a healthy life. These three essential functions are typified by the teacher, the soldier, and the worker. Every member of a human community has a natural obligation to perform at least one of these functions (Russell, 2005).


During Aristotle’s years with Plato, he reflected the older philosopher’s views. After Plato’s death, Aristotle began to develop his own ideas more fully. Practical and empirical, in contrast to Plato, he was less concerned with abstraction than with his environment (Ackrill, 2001).

In Plato’s philosophy, reality consisted of two worlds—one of understanding, ideal forms and another of material objects less real than the forms. Aristotle tried to reformulate Plato’s insights into a system that would be more unified and would treat change and material objects as entirely real. In doing so, he worked out concepts that he could apply to all knowledge of his time. Aristotle’s organization and classification of this knowledge formed the first systematized sciences (Lear, 2005).

Natural Science (chiefly in Physics, History of Animals and on the Soul). To Aristotle, nature included all things capable of changing by themselves. Each living thing, according to him, has a soul, or psyche, which is its form and directs its change. Man and all other animals experience things as sources of either attraction or repulsion.

Aristotle compiled a wealth of information about plants and about the anatomy and behaviour of animals. His studies and classifications were accepted as infallible for nearly 2, 000 years. However, his lack of interest in experiment and his concentration on the purpose of objects limit the value of his lack of interest in experiment and his concentration on the purpose of objects limit the value of his scientific work, especially in physics and astronomy (Ackrill, 2001). (He maintained, for example, that the universe consisted of 55 concentric spheres, with the earth motionless at its centre).

 Logic (chiefly in prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics, later collected with other treatise as the Organon, or Instrument). Aristotle has been called the inventor of formal logic, since he was the first to formulate specific rules for distinguishing valid from invalid reasoning. According to Aristotle, any inquiry relies on logic, which consists of finding out the relationship between propositions. He maintained that all logical thought follows a certain sequence, which he called syllogism—an arrangement of three propositions in which the third necessarily follows from the other two. Aristotle also felt that in every science there are self-evident truths that can be used as starting points for syllogistic deduction (Adler, 2005).

Ethics (chiefly in Nicomachean Ethics).  According to Aristotle, the purpose of a thing, as revealed by its form, is what it strives toward. A thing is good when it performs its purpose, and, if conscious, it feels pleasure when it does so efficiently. But although each thing has its own purpose, this purpose is also a means to a higher purpose. Only man, who has both consciousness and reason, is capable of happiness, which accompanies conscious performance of a higher purpose. Man’s highest purpose is to imitate the action of the ultimate “unmoved mover,” corresponding to God, whose only action is contemplation (Adler, 2005).

The specific virtues Aristotle listed reflect those valued by his culture. They include courage, temperance, liberty, self-respect, friendliness, and justice. Aristotle stressed motive and also suitability of the action to the circumstances (a reformulation of the Greek ideal of moderation).

Rhetoric and Art (in Rhetoric and Poetics). In Rhetoric, Aristotle stressed logic as a necessary basis for public speaking. In Poetics, Aristotle investigated the nature of Greek drama. Like Plato, he felt the purpose of art was to increase the audience’s understanding of the world. But he believed drama had a second purpose—to cleanse the audience’ strong emotions of their painful aspects. “Tragedy,” he noted in Poetics, “is an imitation of an action…through pity and fear affecting the proper catharsis of these emotions (Lear, 2005).


In conclusion, it has often been questioned whether metaphysics is a legitimate pursuit. At times the doubt is based on the admitted fact that it has been revolving the same questions for centuries. Such criticism is not very telling, partly since the questions are so difficult that a rapid solution is not to be expected, partly because in point of fact much progress has been made, at least in the closing of blind alleys and in the sharper defining issues.


  1. Ackrill, J.L. editor (2001). Aristotle the Philosopher (Oxford University).
  2. Adler, M.J. (2005). Aristotle for Everyday: Difficult Thought made Easy (Macmillan).
  3. Lear, Jonathan (2005). Aristotle: the Desire to Understand (Cambridge University).
  4. Harte, Verity (2005). Plato on Parts and Wholes: The Metaphysics of Structure. Clarendon.
  5. Russell, Daniel (2005). Plato on Pleasure and the Good Life. Oxford, England.

Criticism Of Peter Singer’s Theory Of Animal Rights Through The Prism Of Aristotle’s


            Peter Singer has become well known for his protection of animal rights’ equality. On the contrary, Aristotle was viewing animals merely as the source of food and other products, as well as being inferior to men. The work will be aimed at discussing both viewpoints.

Criticism of Peter Singer’s Theory of Animal Rights through the Prism of Aristotle’s Philosophy

            Peter Singer’s theory of animal rights

            Peter Singer has become well known for his theory of animal rights early in 1970s. He is associated for fighting for the animal rights’ equality and justifies his theory by the equality of sufferings both animals and humans can experience. Singer tries to be objective, admitting that animals are different from humans in many aspects, this is why many human rights cannot yet be granted to animals. Referring to the voting rights, Singer notes that “the case for equality between men and women cannot validly be extended to nonhuman animals” (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 150). This explanation is logical, because animals do not possess the required rationality and intelligence to vote. However, Singer refers to the question of intelligence as definitely inapplicable to the issue of rights equality. His argument leads the reader to the conclusion, that the level of intelligence is not determining, when one speaks about racial or sexual equality (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 152). In the same manner, the issue of intelligence should not serve the basic criterion in discussing animal equal rights.

            According to Singer, the issue of animal rights equality is grounded in the equality of interests: one takes into account the interests of all members of the human society, without any referral to their race, sex, age, and other subjective characteristics. In the same manner, animals must express similar interests, the basic of which is the interests is not “not being tormented, because it will suffer if it is”. (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 152) Thus, sufferings and the ability to suffer serves the main criterion in granting animals with rights equal to the rights of humans. Singer considers the discussed principles moral and ethical. The author emphasizes the fact, that the greater portion of philosophic works is created within the framework of human equality; as a result, the issue of animals’ equality is not taken as an issue at all. However, the fact that an animal is capable of suffering should already serve the reason to grant equal rights to animals, as Singer asserts in his utilitarian framework (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 148).

            Aristotle vs. Singer

            Plants exist for the sake of animals, and brute beasts for the sake of a man – domestic

animals for his use and food, wild ones for food and other accessories of life, such as clothing and various tools. Since nature makes nothing purposeless or in vain, it is undeniably true that she has made all animals for the sake of man (Vardy & Grosch, 1997, p. 260).

Through the prism of Aristotle’s philosophy, Singer’s ideas cannot be taken seriously. Nature has created a well-designed hierarchy of live beings, in which humans occupy the superior position. Simultaneously, how one may refer to animal sufferings if they are inevitable in the natural circle of life? It is difficult to disagree that humans cause sufferings to animals, but with their inferior position it is inevitable to produce the products, for which nature had created them. Simultaneously, Singer does not speak about sufferings, which humans cause to each other. In case a human is killed or wounded by other human, does it mean that the one who suffers should be granted additional rights?

            The approach seems to be weak and lacks consistence. Animals cannot be superior or equal to humans due to the role which nature had initially granted to them. The Aristotelian theory of virtue refers to the “excellence to fulfill this or that task” (Varner, 1996, p. 27). The rational ability of the human to possess theoretical and practical reason is the basis for the human to have rights. As long as animals cannot display virtue, as Aristotle puts it, they cannot be granted equal rights in the form, displayed by Singer. Singer relates to sufferings as a moral category, the category of feelings, through the prism of which equal animal rights seem the best solution. Aristotle views virtue as the category closer to the mind, than to the soul, the category which cannot be displayed by animals and which makes animals remain inferior to humans (Varner, 1996, p. 34).


            The issue of sufferings is the most interesting in the present discussion. Philosophically, sufferings may seem to be improperly referred to by Singer. I will try to explain why I think sufferings are too narrow to cause the equality of animal and human rights.

            The sufferings to which Singer refers, and which seem to be neglected by Aristotle, are the sufferings which humans cause to animals. These sufferings take place in two instances, as Singer puts it: when we eat animals, and when we subject them to medical or similar experiments (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 153). Simultaneously, eating animals is the most frequent case, when humans contact animals. As a result, Singer supposes that contemporary urban society treats animals “purely as means to our ends” (Singer & Regan, 1989, p. 155). However, there are numerous smaller philosophical aspects, which Singer ignored or did not take into account.

            First, what about the sufferings animals experience, when killed by other animals in the natural hierarchy of species? Does it mean, that the smaller species, victimized by larger predators, should be granted additional rights? If this is the case, what rights could these be? It is question of philosophy; it is the question which Singer has to answer to make his theory consistent. In his turn, Aristotle takes the fact of animal sufferings in nature for granted, relying on nature in distributing rights between the species, and making animals inferior to humans (Vardy & Grosch, 1997, p. 254). Singer can be right, stating that the criteria of intelligence are improper in judging the rights’ equality. However, he seems to forget that unintelligence and physical deficiencies among humans may legally become the basis for the rights’ limitations –criminals are deprived of the rights for freedom, and mentally deficient may be deprived the rights to vote, etc (Taylor, 2003, p. 29). Human society closely watches the set of rights granted to each individual. If mentally deficient people are deprived of some legal rights due to their irrationality and inability to be responsible for their actions, why should animals be granted equal rights, if they cannot be responsible for their actions, too?

            Second, in order to make the category of sufferings consistent with Singer’s theory, it should also be applied to other areas of human and animal existence. In case a human causes sufferings to another human by murdering or wounding it, does this mean that the wounded person should be granted with additional rights based on the extent to which he (she) has suffered? Additionally, if this is the case, what rights should the wounded person be granted – should the human have the right for revenge? Objectively, the suffering human in the contemporary society has the right for moral or material compensation, but this right is granted to the human as a result of legal prosecution and on the basis of the court’s decision for each specific case.

            Third, Singer seems to forget about sufferings, which an animal may cause to a human. How should these sufferings be evaluated? The philosophical issue here is what additional rights can be granted to a suffering human. On the one hand, the human having suffered from an animal has a full legal right to ask for moral and material compensation, as in case when the two humans are involved. Who will provide the realization of these rights, if they are granted to a human? What Singer implies in his theory, and what he openly neglects, is that granting animals with equal rights is making the whole society responsible for their irrational actions, which they cannot control. The sufferings’ criterion lacks profoundness. It is more inconsistent than one may think at first glance. Morally, sufferings should be accounted by people, but this criterion is more suitable to the cases, when the sufferings caused to animals have no social aims (e.g., producing food or other daily products, or performing medical researches). In case one accepts Singer’s theory, it will mean that each animal should be granted equal rights due to suffering from other animals within the natural hierarchy, and this results turning into social and legal chaos.


Singer, P. & Regan, T. (1989). Animal rights and human obligations. New Jersey: Prentice-


Taylor, A. (2003). Animals and ethics: An overview of the philosophical debate. Broadview


Vardy, P. & Grosch, P. (1997). The puzzle of ethics. M.E. Sharpe, 1st edition.

Varner, G.E. (1996). The prospects for consensus and convergence in the animal rights

debate. In L.M. Hinman (eds), Contemporary moral issues, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

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