The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 1)


In a variety of outlets there has been much discussion on city planning, especially on the so-called “new urbanism,”and on Aristotle’s distinctions in qualified ethics in the various regime-types, but there has not been much work on an Aristotelian framework for understanding how regime-types shape city planning.[1] Few have asked whether Aristotle’s understanding of political regimes would shape the physical plan of the city in ways dependent on the regime-type. It is clear from a few key texts in Aristotle’s work that the specific regime does indeed shape the physical design of the city in certain ways, but he does not address the question directly. The purpose of this essay is to develop an Aristotelian perspective of city planning using a few Aristotelian concepts. I am not expositing any view that Aristotle explicitly stated. This paper is, rather, a development of his thought. I focus specifically on questions related to the location, function, and adornment of the places or sites of power.

I argue that in Aristotelian city planning, the location, adornment, multi-functionality, and symbolism (or message) from places of political power to the ruled will differ widely depending on the regime-type. This is mainly due to the political need to visually express perceived or actual differences or sameness between the ruler(s) and the ruled in support of regime legitimacy and stability. I will start with an exposition of keys texts in Aristotle, determining the principles used for the rest of the discussion. I apply these principles to city planning, leading to widely different expressions of power. The framework that I develop has the potential to be an additional or competing means of determining the true regime-type of a political community.

Key Texts and Principles

Every discussion of city planning in Aristotle’s work is in the context and in terms of military defense. For example, he rejects the straight-row design of Hippodamus’s city planning because it is too intuitive and therefore too easy for foreign armies to find their way around. It is better, he argues, for there to be some irregularity with a “view to safety as well as ordered beauty” (1330b32). This has little to do with regime-types and sites of power, however.

In another text, though still on the subject of military defense, Aristotle argues that different forms of city planning are more or less “advantageous” to different regimes. He writes,

With regard to fortified places, what is advantageous is not the same for all regimes. For example, a fortified height [acropolis] is characteristic of oligarchy and monarchy; levelness is characteristic of democracy; neither of these is characteristic of aristocracy, but rather a number of strong places.[2] (1330b18-21)

Aristotle does not tell us how some regimes are more advantageous than others, but one can make confident inferences. It is important to recognize from the outset that the differences are based on the places of power. The span of the fortifications for the rule by one (i.e., kingdom and tyranny) and rule by few (i.e., aristocracy and oligarchy) would be small and not extend through the whole city as in democracy. The fortification would be around the rulers’ homes. Sites of aristocratic power are not necessarily fortified on an elevated height, but they are fortified distinct from the people. Since democracy is the rule of the many, the defenses seem to be around all, not just the few. Already we see that for Aristotle the regime-type shapes the landscape.

There are at least two motivations behind these fortification—the defense of power (what I call the “cold” motive) and the defense of legitimacy (what I call the “warm” motive).  I first discuss the defense of power. This motivation has in view a defense against both external threats (e.g., foreign armies) and internal threats (e.g., insurrection). The way in which the rulers of each regime seek to defend themselves depends on the nature of the regime. The guiding principle behind all fortification is the basic military reality that the seizing of power, whether from without or within, occurs typically by seizing the site of power. A monarch, then, as being the principal power of the realm, will protect his power by protecting his site of power, viz., his person with the fortifications of his residence. Similarly, the oligarchs and aristocrats will fortify their residence for protection. Both fortify their homes exclusively, leaving the people without fortifications. The reason for this is obvious. In these regimes, fortifications for the people make insurrection and disobedience more probable. For democracies, in which there is no particular person in power, the fortifications are for the direct protection of the people. In the ideal democracy, says Aristotle, all people are on level ground and live close together.

Aristotle is clear that the regime-type determines the place(s) of fortifications: around the site(s) of power. As a defense of power, it is a ‘negative’ motivation, not because the motivation is bad in itself, but because it seeks to negate the opposing force, external or internal. There is no attempt in this motivation to build solidarity; it is there to deter and destroy only.

The second motivation, the defense of legitimacy (the ‘warm’ motivation) is harder to discern in Aristotle’s writings, but there is some indication of it. This is the motivation to ensure the legitimacy of rule through presenting the sites of power as ornaments, indicating to the public the worthiness of rule. Aristotle hints at this in his Nicomachean Ethics (4.2; 1123a5-9).[3]

For the magnificent person is lavish not on himself but on the common affairs, and his gifts have a certain resemblance to votive offerings. Yet it also belongs to the magnificent person to furnish his home in a way fitting to his wealth (since this, too, is a certain ornament [kosmos]); and with respect to these furnishings, he will spend more on those works that endure over time.

The context concerns the virtue of magnificence, a virtue one can have only when in possession of great wealth. The magnificent person is not to be lavish in spending only for himself. The spending must be in part for the common good. Aristotle directly connects furnishing one’s house with this spending for the common good. These furnishings are “ornaments” to and of the city. The word ‘ornament’ is a common translation of the Greek word, kosmos. Aristotle uses the word again to describe the great-souled man. He writes, “Greatness of soul, then, seems to be like a kind of ornament of the virtues, for it makes them greater and does not arise without them” (1124a1). The word seems to refer to something added on to an already existing and foundational structure and yet it supports this structure. It serves as a public symbol of what underlies it. The greatness of soul, being possible only after achieving great virtue, is the public ornament of surpassing virtue. One becomes, due to exceeding virtue, a public ornament.

How, then, can the home be an ornament in a similar way? Though Aristotle does not answer this question directly, the answer seems to be that it is (ideally) an ornament of the underlying power of its resident. It is the public show of political power, and it reinforces this underlying power. But it is more than about power. It is about the legitimacy of power—the virtue of the resident. The ornament, the external display, is meant to be a public display of the great virtue and therefore right to rule.

This show of virtue is ‘warm’ and positive because it seeks to solidify power not through negating opposing forces, but by engendering mutual trust and solidarity between the ruler(s) and the ruled. It is an attempt to communicate to the ruled that the ruler is a legitimate power. Aristotle has recognized, it seems, the commonsense notion that visual representations of power have an effect on the perceived legitimacy of political power. One must look the part, not only be the part. Indeed, one can distinguish the ‘be’ and the ‘look’ but not easily separate them. Even legitimate political power needs to put on a show.

Regime-types and Symbols of Power

The negative defense of power is fairly clear and does not need further elaboration. The defense of legitimacy, however, requires more discussion. I will apply the principle of the defense of legitimacy to the six regime-types presented by Aristotle.

Rule by One

 The first set of regime-types I discuss is the rule by one: the monarchy. Monarchical rule can be either a kingdom or a tyranny. Both seek to fortify elevated terrain (e.g., a hilltop castle) and both will ornament their site of power to communicate a message of legitimacy. Both sites of power are, in a sense, a show of power, an ornament of an alleged underlying greatness. As elevated, the distinction of superior and inferior is given added emphasis. The monarch, as the one who looks down, communicates superiority and the up-looker, by the very act of looking up, has become a symbol of inferiority. The arrangement communicates the principles of inequality inherent in these regime-types.

The message of the kingdom is much different than the message of the tyranny. When a monarch holds legitimate (not arbitrary) power, he both appears before the people as superior in virtue and he is superior in virtue. He is therefore a king. The apparent or symbolized inequality in social relations is based on an actual inequality in virtue. When the king looks down upon the people, his elevated status presents an appearance of superiority, and the people accept him as such, because he is superior. But this superiority comes with additional and exclusive (and perhaps terrifying) responsibility. He must lead his people justly and fairly. He must look down with affection, as a father. He must love and care for his people. The people—those who look up—are compelled, by the display of legitimate might and power, to submit themselves to the king and look to him for protection and just laws. The grandness of the structure presented before them is a symbol of the virtue and greatness of its resident, and the site of power becomes a type of rallying point for societal unity and solidarity. There forms a mutual respect between ruler and ruled. The former has responsibility and authority and the latter have reverence and submission.

Thomas Aquinas speaks of this type superior/inferior relationship as having the potential for greater love than between equals. He writes, “between those who are unequal there can be a greater love than between equals.”[4] This social inequality even has beauty to it. He writes, “The cause of inequality could be on the part of God; not indeed that He would punish some and reward others, but that He would exalt some above others; so that the beauty of order would the more shine forth among men.”[5] The hierarchical social structure, when observed, shows a certain beauty of order. The relationship of the king to his subjects, symbolized in the elevated and exalted place of royal dwelling, shows forth a beauty of order consistent with Aristotle’s description.

Furthermore, since the place of power serves as a dwelling, the place of power becomes a symbol of continuity. It is a place in which the kings of the past and the kings of the future will live and reign. The continuity of the dead, living and yet to be born are presented for public viewing, sending a message of stability, security, and durability. Every generation, then, is part of what Edmund Burke calls the “the great primeval contract of eternal society,”[6] in which a set of sanctioned acts, rights, duties, manners, and other social expectations have developed and passed along through generations. The dwelling place of the king is the symbol of that eternal society. It is the visual contract linking the “visible and invisible world.” The people can expect the king to act as his fathers did and the king can expect the people to act as their fathers did. The regime and its symbols of power and solidarity bring society into a common intergenerational bond. It is the legitimacy of the hierarchy that engenders cross-generational sentiment, and the dwelling place of the sovereign is the prized symbol communicating the eternality of the society.

The tyrant, however, is not so lucky. He presents himself in much the same way, but he has a very different yet unintentional message. The tyrant communicates little but arbitrary power, and the symbols of legitimacy he puts forward to the people cause resentment, not trust and affection. The display is quickly declared superficial and inauthentic. His power, when exercised is not felt like that of a loving father, but of a thief or uninvited stranger. The tyrant, however, has no choice but to present himself as if he were a legitimate ruler—as a king. He must, first of all, protect his seat of power from external forces and from insurrection (the ‘cold’ defense) and he must also present himself as worthy of the title. Of course, a tyrant could imprudently care little for his public display of worthiness and rely only on brute force and coercion. But his rule would be much more effective, if he were to act and present himself as a king. This is the advice of Aristotle to the tyrant: “it is a source of preservation for tyranny to make it more kingly” and “he should give a fine performance of the part of the kingly rule” (1214a35-6, 39-40). And preservation of power comes not only through kingly acts, but also through a kingly appearance: The tyrant “should appear not harsh but dignified [σεμνός], and further, of such a sort that those encountering him feel awe rather than fear” (1314b19-20). This “dignity” is the presentation of a certain gravity—a majestic presence. To maintain power, then, the tyrant ought to take on the appearance of a king. Ultimately, behind the drapery of pseudo-inequality is nothing but equality between the ruler and ruled.

The tyrant’s home then will ideally look much like the kings—elevated, grand, and powerful. It will be an attempt to communicate superiority and legitimate power. The hope is that the tyrant’s show communicates sufficient affection for those below to inspire the people to look up with admiration and obedience. Though this might work for a time, a pseudo-kingly tyrant cannot stay in power long. For if a tyrant could successfully look and act like a king, and thereby be thought of as a legitimate power, then he is no longer a tyrant but a king. There has been a regime change. But a kingly tyrant is an oxymoron that only exacerbates his illegitimate claim to power.  This is one of the reasons why the tyranny, with oligarchy, is one of the “most short-lived regimes” (1315b13), according to Aristotle.

Furthermore, a tyrant does not have the benefit of the succession of legitimate power to his sons. As I mentioned above, the dwelling of kings has a message of continuity as a symbol of an “eternal society.” The tyrant, of course, could attempt this show, but if he remains a tyrant (that is, if he does not become a king), his children have no more legitimacy than he does. Therefore, his home could look the same as a king, yet have an opposite message: discontinuity and arbitrary power.

But what is fascinating is that, per Aristotle’s advice, the tyrant must present himself regally in order to maintain power. It is only rational to do so. The tyrant is in a difficult position. He can either make a regal show of virtue, an attempt at a ‘warm’ display of power, or he can rely on nothing but the cold power of walls and shields. The most rational seems to be for a tyrant to pursue legitimacy through becoming a king.

Part 2 and Part 3


[1] Philip Bess makes extensive use of Aristotle in Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), but he does not discuss city planning in terms of Aristotle’s various regimes. See, also, for example, Steve Hartlaub and Richard Jelier “Ancient Political Philosophy and New Urbanism: Creating Community,” conference presentation at Western Political Science Association 2011 Annual Meeting.

[2] All quotations of Politics is from the Carnes Lord translation. See Aristotle’s Politics Trans. by Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[3] All quotations, unless noted, for Nicomachean Ethics come from the Bartlett and Collins translation. See Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics Translated by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[4] Summa Theologica I.96.3. Accessed here:

[5] Ibid

[6] See Reflections on the Revolution in France. Accessed here:


2 thoughts on “The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 2) – Lovely Country

  2. Pingback: The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 3) – Lovely Country

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