The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 2)

Part 1 and Part 3

The Rule by the Few

The similarities and differences between oligarchy and aristocracy (the latter being best regime for Aristotle) are similar to those between kingdom and tyranny. In both regimes, the rulers have wealth. The oligarchs are powerful on the basis of their wealth and the aristocracy, though in power on the basis Picture2of virtue, have the degree of wealth necessary for the formation of virtue. Wealth is a necessary as ancillary to virtue. Both oligarchs and aristocrats would also make a show of their wealth, following the second of our key texts described in Part 1, namely, that the wealthy should serve the common good by furnishing and adorning their home. In many ways, their places of power would look the same. That is, their home’s physical appearance, apart from the message communicated to the ruled, is basically the same.

Aristotle does, however, state that oligarchs would, with the monarchs, position their places of power on elevated terrain. The reason for the difference is likely due to a heightened threat of insurrection for reasons unique to oligarchs compared with aristocrats. Oligarchies create factions in the city “on the grounds that [the people] are done an injustice because they do not partake of equal things in spite of being equal” (Politics 1303b5,6). As with tyrants, the show of wealth does not communicate legitimate power, but arbitrary power. Their raised dwellings are proposed symbols of a superiority, but the people see through them. To the people, they are ostentatious displays of wealth and only show forth their vanity.

The primary difference between oligarchy and aristocracy is less the look of things, but the underlying or perceived virtue of the rulers. Are the rulers virtuous enough to deserve their status over the people? The ultimate difference between the two, then, is over equality and inequality. The people do not want equals rising above them and telling them what to do. They want either a superior to instruct them or they want to decide for themselves. An oligarchy is a regime of equals with the arbitrary exaltation of some over others. Such a social arrangement is contrary to nature, as Aristotle writes, “to assign what is not equal to equal persons and what is not similar to similar persons is contrary to nature” (1325b8,9). And for this reason, it is one of the “most short-lived regimes.”

The best regime, the regime that one prays for, is the rightful exaltation of the virtuous few over the people—the aristocracy. Aristotle writes, “Only the regime that is made up of those who are best simply on the basis of virtue, and not of men who are good in relation to some presupposition, is justly referred to as an aristocracy” (Politics 1293b3-5). Though unlikely to arise (hence, the one we pray for), it still is possible. The people, despite being inferior, have the ability to recognize superiority, not merely in the show of superiority, but also in the person. This assumes that the people have a degree of nobility, for “when another person is superior on the basis of virtue and of the capacity that acts to achieve the best things, it is noble to follow this person and just to obey him” (1325b10-12). Hence, one of the essential requirements for a long-lasting aristocracy is the ability of the people to recognize, assent to, and cherish superiors. And even with such people, the adornment of one’s place of power serves a proper function in the securing of power. The instinct for self-preservation, security, and the reasonable prospects for comfort are provided by the aristocrat’s public face, viz., his home. Most people would likely have little direct contact with these men. The home is the symbol of superior presence, and it provides confidence in the determinations of the virtuous. Perhaps this sense of presence is what Aristotle was getting at when he distinguished the oligarchic manner of having elevated places of power and the aristocracy having them on “strong places.” Both are secured by fortification, but the latter’s are not elevated. It seems that these places of power and dwelling are meant to be closer to the people. They need security from external threats, but much less security against the people. Furthermore, as virtuous servant-leaders of the people, it makes sense that the aristocracy would be close rather than far. Their status as superior world, however, justify an elevated dwelling, though this would be only a matter of prudence.

The Rule by Many

The democracy and polity regimes offer an interesting contrast, both with the others and between themselves. I begin with democracy. In a democracy there are no places of power distinct from the people as there are in the rule by one and the few. The place of real power is diffused throughout the city, not located in any particular place. There will be sites of power at which there is deliberation and decisions concerning political matters, but they are not sites of power as in monarchical, oligarchic, and aristocratic dwelling. No one lives in these places. They do not take on any symbolism of kingly generational transference of power. Nor do they stand for a social arrangement of superiors and inferiors. When the people of a democracy look at this homeless places of political decision they see themselves. The public face of power is the face of the people reflected on the walls of public political buildings. For some democracies, such as Athens, there is an elevated place—an acropolis. The Acropolis of Athens is the place to which Pericles likely commanded his people to “fix [their] eyes everyday”[1] to rise them out of their individual concerns up towards the concerns of the city and the principles on which it stands. It was not a place of a person or persons, but of a set of ideas and ideals. Of course, not all democracies have an acropolis, but they often have some rallying point for social solidarity—some site that symbolizes a collective, intergenerational and transcendent commitment beyond the individual everyday concerns of existence.

But no one lives in these places, and this is by design. For someone of natural or acquired power to live in the acropolis would be to place a relation between him and his fellows that would violate the principles of democracy. The elevation serves as a message of superiority, something that a democracy cannot have. This is why Aristotle states in one of the key texts above that democratic defense is having all people on level ground. Everyone lives together, and no one rises above. The purpose of this is that that people have their hands on everyone so that no one rises above anyone else. Everyone is grab-able. When on level ground and together, the people have control over individuals. The regime can prevent the following:

There is factional conflict through preeminence when a certain person or persons are greater in power than accords with the city and the power of the governing body; from such persons there customarily arises a monarchy or rule of the powerful. Hence in some places they have the custom of ostracism—at Argos and Athens, for example. It is better to see to it from the beginning that no one is preeminent to such an extent, however, than to let them arise and to heal the ill afterwards. (Politics 1302b15-21)

Keeping everyone together on level ground is effective to prevent the preeminence of some over others, and when one does become preeminent some democracies use the practice of ostracism.

The level ground comment in the key text certainly refers to dwellings, especially in the context of fortifications. Since homes are the public face of its owner and occupant, there should not be any exalted dwellings in a democracy. It sends a message of preeminence that undermines the regime. These would be banned by law and all would be forced to live near one another. Houses on hilltops are strictly prohibited. Furthermore, it seems that the type of adornment Aristotle mentions in one of the keys texts would not be allowed, for it serves, as one translation (Loeb) has it, as a “distinction” of wealth from the others, and therefore it serves as a distinction in power.[2] This would not be allowed in a democracy. Nor would democracies allow what one would typically see in a polity, namely, main-streets in the heart of a city with large, stately homes serving as community-affirming and city adornment functions. It seems that in a true and pure democracy, the people would all live generally in the same type and size of home, and nothing in communicating distinction, especially of power, would be allowed. Aristotle even suggests that an office should be created to detect those “who live in a manner that is disadvantageous relative to the regime” (Politics 1308b20-21). The adornment of one’s home would be one indication of subversion by the potentially preeminent.

It is not only subversion that a democratic regime must fear; it is also a fear of the superiority of another, by the sheer gravity of their presence, which can be forceful in shaping others on how they ought to live. The home of a superior acts as a public face of the person, and as such can communicate a power similar to the presence of the actual person. And since inferiors are, by nature, drawn to obey their recognized superiors (though they can rebel against this call of nature), the presence of superiors works to undermine one of the “defining principles” of democracy, namely, the “living as one wants” (Politics 1317b12). The sheer presence of the superior undermines one’s perceived power to do as he wants, and therefore democracies, in which the “majority is authoritative” (1317b10), will ban expressions of superiority of any kind, including the adornment of homes, to preserve this conception of freedom.

The regime that Aristotle calls “polity” is rule by the “middling” element of society or, what today we would call the middle class. Though such regimes are a “mixture of oligarchy and democracy,” they “tend toward democracy” (Politics 1293b33-36). But polity avoids the common trap of democracy and oligarchy, namely, their tendency to create an “arrogant and base” people incapable of following reason. The middle class is the “readiest to obey reason” for they are moderates in wealth. A community with a dominant or majority middle class is “capable of being well governed.”

Just as this regime-type is the mean between the two extremes of oligarchy and democracy, the nature of its places of power and their functions and degree of adornment are means between that of the two as well. The community that the middle class governs is not made up solely of the middle class. There are rich and poor as well. So the expressions of power in the places of power are not meant to satisfy only similar persons, but different ones as well; and it is likely that the presentation of their worthiness of rule is toward the poor, not the rich. The rulers of polities, then, have a significant ruling base (i.e., many similar persons as in a democracy), yet they rule over others on the basis of superior wealth (i.e., as in an oligarchy).

This translates into what we would think of today as traditional main-street houses in the heart of the town or city. The owners of the homes are likely middle to upper middle class and they own and occupy a home that expresses a certain degree of wealth and dignity. It is common today for these homeowners to organize community events allowing others to walk through the old home for appreciation. Though some might call this a new degree of conspicuous consumption, it is better to look upon it as an affirmation of community. For the homes are typically of a traditional style and remind those of walking through a past age. It is to a limited degree a recognition of Burke’s eternal society. Furthermore, the owners are taking a risk: they are opening their homes up for possible scouting for burglary and other types of criminal activity. It is about an appreciation, concern and care for the solidarity of a townspeople, not showing off consumption.

It is unclear that there were such community events in Aristotle’s day, but the same type of community-affirmation would still find expression. The middle class, desperate to show forth a legitimacy to the poorer classes, would want to adorn their homes with something conducive for pleasant public consumption. Their homes would show symbols of patriotism, solidarity, and affection. And the style of the home would, in part, follow the vernacular-like style.[3] A middle-class home could stand side-by-side with a lower class home in complete harmony, because care has been taken not to flout the superior position of the middle class, but to affirm solidarity in the aspects of their similarities. A sure sign of an oligarchic spirit is the erection of a home in a style wildly incongruent with the local style.

As is clear, the primary purpose of the middling element’s expressions of legitimate power is the message of solidarity—a message of “we’re in this together.” It is not about great superior virtue as in a kingdom and aristocracy (and attempted in an oligarchy). The rulers in the polity would set aside areas for recreation, such as publicly-funded gardens and parks. And consistent with polity being a mean between democracy and oligarchy, the rulers of the polity would set aside government buildings for the purpose of the affairs of the state and no one would live there, yet their homes would still have a certain political gravity to them. They would serve to distinguish, though not to the extent of other regimes. The whole purpose, as I said, would be to secure a sense among the poor of belonging to a free society while also engendering pleasant consent to the dictates of the ruling class.

Mixed Regime

As for a mixed regime, it would contain the elements described above depending on the regimes mixed. The United States is a useful example. The President of the US, having executive authority analogous to that of a monarch, lives in the place he works and conduct official business (the White House). US Representatives, being analogous to a democracy (though not perfectly), meets in a building (The Capital Building) in which no one lives. What we find then is that in a mixed regime the various regime-types embedded find their expression in ways similar to non-mixed regimes. This suggests that there is something natural to the ways that types of power come to be expressed. A monarchical authority wants to express his power from a grand house, because a house, especially for an elected executive, allows one to step in a tradition of that executive position. If every elected executive simply stayed in his own private house, there would not be a ‘stepping into’ a certain legacy and tradition built into a permanent house of the executive. Again, the White House is good example of this.


[1] Thucydides The History of the Peloponnesian War Translated by Rex Warner (New York: Penguin Books, 1954), 149 (2.43).

[2] Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics Translated by H. Rackham (London: Harvard University Press, 1926).

[3] They would not follow vernacular architecture completely. Such architecture is, by definition, a type of forced architecture due to local conditions, materials, and poverty. But they could incorporate aspects of the vernacular, as churches have done.


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

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

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

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