What is a Polity?
What Do Polity, Kallipolis, and Republic Mean?
Classically speaking, the term Polity means “a state” (a group of people under a single social contract), but it also implies an “ideal state” (a Kallipolis).
Polity, Kallipolis, and Republic in the Basic and Ideal Sense
A Polity is, in the most basic respect (as Plato used it), implies something in between “a Republic” (a group of people under a form of government that isn’t a monarchy; generally with some sort of representative government) and a “commonwealth” (a nation, state, or other political entity founded on law and united by a compact of the people for the common good.)
The reason I say this is because the term comes from Plato’s Republic where, when discussing what we can today call “the five regimes,” the term Polity is used to describe not only “a state,” but the “good” forms of government specifically and not the “bad” tyrannical form (tyranny).
Thus, through its original usage in the Republic, the term takes on a meaning of “ideal state” to some extent (like the term Republic does).
Thus, although one could argue just as strongly for the plain definitions (where polity, commonwealth, or republic essentially just means “state”), from another frame we can say the terms Polity and Republic essentially imply their ideal states. Thus, in this sense (and some specifics aside), they all imply the same thing as the Greek concept of “Kallipolis” (which means beautiful city; or, the ideal state).
In other words, the terms polity and republic can be thought to imply their basic form or ideal form (where republic means “ideal republic” and polity means “ideal polity;” meanwhile Kallipolis always implies an ideal form).
In this respect a polity / republic (i.e. ideal polity / ideal republic) or kallipolis is a popular government with checks and balances that mixes the lawful forms of government including aristocracy, democracy, and oligarchy in an effort seeks to maximize the virtues of the state (this being true regardless of the specific mix of the forms).
In other words, the government from Plato’s Republic is [an attempt at]… a Polity, a Republic, a Beautiful city-state (or in modern terms an ideal and lawful city, state, nation, or even empire; a people bound by a just social contract).
TIP: Pure direct democracy is not an ideal mixed-Republic (it is pure democracy). Therefore, it makes sense from this perspective that the term Republic today generally implies some for of indirect democracy within a popular and lawful government. See Plato on Democracy.
Plato and Aristotle Usages of the Term Polity
Most of the above confusion (over the terms above being used more than one way) comes from their usage by different philosophers.
Plato seems to coin the term Polity in his book Republic. In it he uses it to mean “a state,” but then mainly uses it to describe just states.
Then Aristotle [in Politics] seems to misunderstand Plato’s usage and confuses it with a timocracy (the Spartan Polity); and then goes on to insinuate that this form is Plato’s ideal Republic.
In other words, the actual definition wasn’t even agreed on by those who popularized and coined the term.
Moving forward the term polity/republic gets the same treatment, where philosophers like Machiavelli and Montesquieu use the terms to imply ideal forms.
With all that said, to avoid having to explain the above, it makes sense to use the terms ideal Republic, ideal Polity, or kallipolis when talking about the ideal state, and to use polity when talking about a just state in general.
TIP: Plato’s Republic contrasts a beautify city with a city of pigs. A polity/republic is not generally a term one would use to describe a tyrannical state, a pure oligarchy, or a “city of pigs” in general. This is an argument against using the term republic/polity to simply refer to any old state.
Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics (the Philosophy of Polities)
The best way to understand the concept of a Polity is by reading Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics (see our summary of the Republic for the gist of both books).
Although, as I’ve noted, the Greeks don’t really agree on a definition, we can generally treat the term as implying an ideal Republic/Polity (but more broadly we actually just have to understand the term in context of who is using it; as again, Aristotle and Plato use the term differently).
All side notes aside, the bottom line here is that the books referred to above discuss an “ideal state” with a “popular government” that definitely isn’t a democracy, definitely isn’t an oligarchy, and is rooted in an aristocracy (Aristotle calls it “in between an Oligarchy and Aristocracy, but this is because he seems to mistake Plato’s usage of Polity for his Timocracy; that or he is implying that Plato’s ideal polity is rooted in a timocracy, either way it opens the door for some confusion).
In all cases, the idea is that the ideal state helps to ensure an ideal people (a people of the Highest Good who enjoy the Highest Good life has to offer; a just state and just people).
Generally, all semantics aside, we can be certain of the general concept here because it is the main point of Plato’s and Aristotle’s political work is to define an ideal state. For Plato, this was a metaphor for the human condition, for Aristotle, it was practical, but both attempted to define a beautiful city.
The Classical Forms of Government, Plato’s Five Regimes
The key to creating a polity is mixing the lawful (or correct) forms of government to maximize their virtues and to avoid the vices of the unlawful (or incorrect) forms.
Classically speaking, Plato’s five regimes (the five forms of government which we base our political theories) are Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny.
Aristotle essentially adopts these terms, minus Timocracy, so we’ll stick with them, but to show this is the correct line of thinking let’s briefly consider Aristotle’s Politics where he says:
And… The whole system of government tends to be neither democracy nor oligarchy, but something in a mean between them, which is usually called a polity… – Book II Part IV where he also actively uses the terms oligarchy, democracy.. and then goes on in Part VI to use the term tyranny.
The Logic Behind the Mixed-Republic (the Polity)
Keeping in mind that Plato and Aristotle don’t fully agree on the forms or what constitutes an ideal state or if a polity really is one. Feel free to read Politics Book II Part IV and compare to Plato’s Republic Book VIII for the gist. Noting that neither thinker was a fan of PURE DIRECT democracy or tyranny (which we also call despotism), we can translate Plato and Aristotle’s collective theory as the following.
Everyone wants liberty and equality (democracy), but in practice pure liberty and equality are anarchy. Anarchy isn’t good for a state because anarchy breeds tyranny (a despotic lawless government).
Furthermore, oligarchy collapses into anarchy, and an honor-based timocracy collapses into democracy.
Thus, the only pure choice of government is Monarchy (ruled by the one) or aristocracy (ruled by the few); which Aristotle differentiates between but Plato considers as one (after differentiating between them). They are the only government types that have the structure that was seen as needed to employ restraints and enforce laws.
However, that monarchy and aristocracy system sounds like a sort of lawful tyranny. Is that better?
Of course, the answer is, probably it is in some respects better. Pure Monarchy is not ideal or desirable. See the American Revolution; the liberal minded human condition is no fan of even the idea of a monarchy.
But again, pure Oligarchy and pure timocracy sound pretty bad too like a Gilded Age state or a fascist or communist state respectively. Surely that isn’t desirable either?
So, hundreds of pages later:
The Greeks suggest an ideal mixed-government rooted in an aristocracy (with its principles of order and hierarchy) that maximizes liberty and equality (the principles of democracy), allows for necessary production and luxury (the principles of oligarchy), and allows for honor and duty (the principles of timocracy), all while avoiding the tyranny of any one form for any “type of citizens.” This all relates back to different types of people with different virtues and is an allegory for the soul. See the Republic or more below on Plato’s class theory.
And Then There Were Republics, and it Was Good [in Many Cases]
This mixed-Constitution or mixed-Republic (free trading Republic) described above, this Polity that Plato illustrates, is essentially the basis of all western governments. This is thanks to the enlightenment thinkers and philosopher forefathers who translated the concepts of the Greeks into the modern age, the timocrats and democrats who helped them in their revolution, and the oligarchs who would rather that than a mercantile king-driven economy; see the French estates minus the top two estates).
This is to say, a Kallipolis, a Polity, and a Republic are all essentially the same thing, on one hand just terms that mean “state” and on the other hand a term that specifically denotes a mixed government with a separation of powers meant to maximize the virtues of the state, the “ends” of “politics.”
Republic, the name of Plato’s book.
TIP: You can think of it this way. Polity/Republic isn’t “a form of government” as much as it is a container in which to place the right mix of the other forms. When you have that mix right, you have a Polity/Republic in the truest sense. The political philosophers often use the term Republic to mean “an ideal mixed form” and “a state.” The interchanging meaning of Republic is exactly like the interchanging meaning of Polity. They are a few connotations aside, both the same thing.
TIP: To offer detail on the above theory and the image it helps to understand Plato’s ideal class system. Plato’s Three Classes: One major key to Plato’s theory from his Republic is his class system. Here each class relates to a “correct” government type (a type that isn’t anarchy or tyranny). Plato divides his just society into three classes: 1. The producers include necessary producers of things like food and shelter and luxury producers of things like art; this group contains democracy and oligarchy with the luxury class being more like an oligarchy and the general foundation being more like a democracy. 2. The auxiliaries are warriors who defend the state; a state with only the necessary probably won’t be sacked, but once luxury is produced warriors are needed. 3. The guardians or philosopher-kings rule over the other classes gently and selflessly. They are the counterpart to the other guardian-like warrior class. This group is more like an aristocracy or timocracy (with the auxiliary being more like a timocracy and philosopher-kings being more like an aristocracy). Auxiliaries and guardians are both guardians and both like an aristocracy. One group are guardians in the physical sense, the auxiliaries who are more like a timocracy, and one group are guardians in the intellectual and moral sense, the aristocratic philosopher-kings. The philosopher-king guardians are the guardians of all; the auxiliaries are like military, police, etc. Basically, you have two producer classes and two guardian classes, each subdivided, but where the two types of producers are in one class, the two types of guardians are in different classes.
TIP: Not all Republics which seek to employ Plato’s theory come out with positive results. For example, Mussolini’s Fascist Government was inspired by Plato although he molded the theory to his own fancies. The Fascist state became a despotic timocracy with oligarchical aspects, a tyrannical warrior class, and corrupt philosopher king.
Plato: The Republic – Book 8 Summary and Analysis.
Aristotle, Politics, Book 2.
TIP: The root word here is poli (which roughly means “many”). The Greek word “Politika” means “affairs of the cities” (so, “the affairs of many within the state”). Kallipolis, Polity, Politics, Politicians, Policy, etc. all reference “the affairs of the state.”
- Aristotle’s Politics
- Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle
- CIA World Fact Book
- Plato’s “The Republic” ~The City of Pigs Vs. Kallipolis~
"What is a Polity?" is tagged with: Left–right Politics, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers, Types of Governments
It awaken my consciousness of governance and remind me of my days as a student of contemporary politics. It is a masterpiece
Could a political party say the Republican and or the Democrats be truly classed a “Polity”?
Not really. A political party is different than a state. So that is really where the issue starts. That said, both Democrats and Republicans in America I think come close enough to ruling in the style of a polity. As a polity is basically a Republican state with democratic elements, which the US is.