Aristotle (384–322 BC)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 18, 2018, from

28. Politics: imperfect states

Just as a correct conception of happiness is the basis of the ideal city, various incorrect conceptions of happiness define mistaken aims for different cities. These mistaken aims underlie the different conceptions of justice that are embodied in the constitutions of different cities. Partisans of oligarchy, for instance, take happiness to consist in wealth; they treat the city as a business partnership (Politics 1280a25–31). Partisans of democracy take happiness to consist simply in the satisfaction of desire; they assume that if people are equal in the one respect of being free rather than slaves, they are equal altogether, and should have an equal share in ruling (1280a24–5). Neither view is completely mistaken, since neither wealth nor freedom is irrelevant to questions of justice, but each is one-sided.

These one-sided views cause errors about the just distribution of political power or other goods. The proper basis for assigning worth in distribution will be whatever is relevant for the common good, since that is the aim of general justice. Since a correct conception of the common good requires a correct conception of happiness, a correct answer to the question about distribution must appeal to a true conception of happiness.

The criticism of existing constitutions seeks to show both how they fall short of the norms that are met by the ideal state, and how they can be improved. Aristotle wants to describe not only the ideal state, but also the best organization of each political system. In some circumstances, he believes, economic, social, and demographic facts may make (for example) democracy or oligarchy difficult to avoid. Still, an imperfect constitution can be improved, by attention to the aspects of justice, and hence the aspects of happiness, that this constitution tends to ignore. Even when Aristotle may appear to be engaged in empirical political sociology, or to be offering hints for the survival of a particular regime, he is guided by the moral and political principles that he defends in the more theoretical parts of the Politics.

Citing this article:
Irwin, T.H.. Politics: imperfect states. Aristotle (384–322 BC), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-A022-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2018 Routledge.

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