The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 3)

Part 1 and Part 2

Person, Place, and State

In the course of my discussion, I have described each regime in terms of the appearance of equality or inequality and the actual equality or inequality. The question I want to raise, which to my knowledge is not something Aristotle raises, is whether there can be a legitimate show of virtue without the same underlying virtue. In other words, can there be a legitimate regime inbrownMansion which the show of superiority exceeds the actual superiority in virtue? Can a monarch present himself with dignity above his actual dignity and still rightfully be called a king? I ask this because it might seem that this is impossible, given my discussion above. Of course, a crafty monarch might be a good deceiver, but the question is, can a political theorist interested in political legitimacy justify the appearance of virtue when the substance is lacking?

I suggest that we can find legitimacy in the show itself. We cannot view the pageantry of the rule-by-one and the rule-by-few as merely isolated acts in history separated from a history, constitution and political tradition. The expression of power that the world saw in the great monarchs of the past and those we see in the present represent an intergenerational power that transcends the here-and-now. Philosopher Roger Scruton insightfully writes,

For the legitimacy of monarchical rule arises ‘transcendentally,’ in the manner of the duties and obligations of family life. The monarch is not chose for her personal attributes, nor does she have obligations and expectations which are the subject-matters of any ‘social contract’. She is simply the representations of sovereignty, and its ceremonial presence. Her will as monarch is not her individual will, but the will of the state. The monarch forms part of that surface of concepts and symbols whereby citizens can perceive their social identity, and perceive society not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. Attachment to the monarch is therefore patriotism in a pure form, a form that could not be translated into a policy or choice of mean.[1]

The British monarchy, for Scruton, serves as the symbolic identity-marker for social solidarity. Its display of dignity, power and sovereignty is a “surface” concept and visual rallying point for the people. And by its very nature the affections associated with this “decent drapery of life,” as Burke called it, connects the living with the dead and unborn in a transcendent bond. The ground of the legitimacy of the regal pageantry, ceremonies, customs and traditions say less about the virtue of the current reigning monarchy than about the virtues of the monarchy itself throughout all time immemorial. As Scruton writes,

If the monarch has a voice at all, it is understood precisely in the cross-generational way that is required by the political process. Monarchs are, in a very real sense, the voice of history, and the very accidental way in which they gain office emphasizes the grounds of their legitimacy, in the history of a people, a place and a culture. This is not to say that monarchs cannot be mad, irrational, self-interested or unwise. It is to say, rather, that they owe their authority and their influence precisely to the fact that they speak for something other than the present desires of present voters, something vital to the continuity and community which the act of voting assumes.[2]

Following Scruton and Burke and in development of Aristotle, it is appropriate to justify the “drapery of life” when viewing the regime cross-generationally. To force liberal conceptions here would be question begging. The present king need not have the degree of private dignity as his public show of dignity. For the public dignity is less about him than it is about the state and the cross-generational social identification that comes with it. It serves more than the securing of authority here-and-now, but also securing the social relations conducive to mutual trust and solidarity, and to a commitment to the dead and yet to be born.

The places of power in monarchy and aristocracy do not suddenly become ostentatious because the present occupant fails to live up to the standard handed to him at birth. If we were to demand some type of authenticity from these occupants and, when failed, demand that he tear down what become ostentatious, it would undermine all sort of functions, some of which Scruton identifies, but also the type of public display that reflects back from the people to the ruler. If one is being raised to rule in these regimes, he ought to be raised in a place that demands the highest of him.[3] The gaze of the people looking up, though being one of submission, has a demand just as phenomenologically penetrating as his look down. The insistent on “authenticity” and, hence, tearing down this drapery, renders inert the upward gaze of the people.

How Useful is this Framework?

As I mentioned in the introduction, my intent in this brief discussion on the places of power in the various political regimes found in the work of Aristotle is to construct a framework to understand ideal cases. When thinking through the landscape of United States, one might find landscapes quite different from what one would expect given my discussion. Problems then arise, which leads us to ask: Do we determine the de facto regime-type of the United States first, using other indicators, and then see if our framework on places of power are consistent with it? Or do we start with the framework and use it to determine the regime type? I cannot answer these questions here with any satisfaction. But I think that there is good reason, following Aristotle and my development of his thought, to think that the regime-type makes an imprint upon the landscape. There certainly are other factors in the development of a landscape and the selection, function, and adornment of places of power, but we cannot neglect the regime’s imprint. And if we agree on a general principle that regimes make an imprint on the landscape, then we can infer back from the landscape the actual regime. Put differently, we can use the landscape to determine the actual, de facto political regime-type.

Indeed, it would be strange that the regime-types, each of which Aristotle identifies as determining or symbiotic with different sets of ethics, would not have a unique effect on the landscape. Why ethics but not landscapes? People relate to one another differently in terms of affection and in terms of equality and inequality depending on the regime. Why would that not be reflected in the landscape? To argue that it has no effect is to radically separate human relations from how, where, and why humans cultivate and develop a landscape. There seems to be no prima facie reason to reject such an effect, and there are good reasons to affirm it.


The Aristotelian framework in this paper serves to understand the relationship of the regime-type to the landscape, especially to the place(s), functionality, and adornment of places of power. It has the potential to assist in explaining why man has developed his landscape in various ways in history and it can provide an additional or competing means of determining the true regime-type of a state. It is likely that there is a regime/landscape relationship similar to the regime/ethics relationship.


[1] Roger Scruton The Meaning of Conservatism 3rd Ed. (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2002), 29-30.

[2] Ibid 48-49.

[3] Similarly, this is why many want schools, libraries, courthouses, and other such buildings to have an architecture that calls those entering to strive for their best. Even if the good, true, and beautiful are not one, it is certainly false to completely disconnect them from each other. An ugly courthouse does not provide one much confidence that justice is served there.


2 thoughts on “The Place(s) of Power in Aristotelian City Planning (Part 3)

  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 1) – Lovely Country

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