Polity, Kallipolis, and Mixed-Republic

Classically speaking, the term Polity means “state” or “form of government“, but implies an “ideal state” or “ideal form of government”.[1][2][3]

Generally speaking, a Polity is what we think of in America today as “a Republic” (or “mixed-Republic”), a lawful popular government, rooted in an aristocracy, that mixes the lawful forms of government including aristocracy, democracy, and oligarchy (an attempted at a lawful popular government that seeks to maximize the virtues of the state).

Plato’s Republic 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 Aristotle’s Politics and Nicomachean Ethics (see our summary of the Republic for the gist of both books).

All the aforementioned books discuss an “ideal state” with a “popular government” that definitely isn’t democracy, definitely isn’t oligarchy, and is rooted in aristocracy. 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).

The term used to describe this ideal state, or “ideal system of government”, is typically translated to English as Polity (although Kallipolis, “beautiful city”, and “ideal state” are also used; and even in Aristotle’s book he points out that the term has different meanings).

We can be certain of this, because it is essentially the main point of Plato and Aristotle’s political work, that is, trying to figure out how politics works and what the ideal state looks like (for Plato, as a metaphor for the human condition, for Aristotle, because it is practical).

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 minus Timocracy, so we’ll stick with these terms, but to show this is the correct line of thinking lets consider quickly 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)

With the above in mind, and noting 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), and noting that neither were big fans of PURE DIRECT democracy or tyranny (what today we also call despotism), we can translate Plato and Aristotle’s collective theory as, generally speaking:

Everyone wants liberty and equality (democracy), but in practice pure liberty and equality is 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 collapse 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), as they are the only government types that have the structure needed to employ restraints and enforce laws.

But wait… That monarchy / aristocracy system sounds like a sort of lawful tyranny. Is that really better?

… and of course the answer is, probably in some respects, but generally 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 wait again… pure Oligarchy and pure timocracy sound pretty bad too, sort of like a Gilded Age state or a fascist or communist 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 Was 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 (thanks to the enlightenment thinker philosopher forefathers who translated the concepts of the Greeks into the modern age, and 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, get it?

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 yourself 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… and they are, a few connotations aside, both essentially 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 (which includes 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 (warriors who defend the state; a state with only the necessary probably won’t be sacked, but once luxury is produced warriors are needed), and 3. the guardians (philosopher kings who 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).To be clear, auxiliaries and guardians are both guardians and both like an aristocracy. One group is guardians in the physical sense, the auxiliaries who are more like a timocracy, and one group 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. So really it is 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 fully different classes.

TIP: With the above in mind, not all Republics who seek to employ Plato’s theory come out with A+ results like the U.S. and U.K., for example Mussolini’s Fascist Government was inspired by Plato (although he molded the theory to his own fancies and ended up creating a despotic timocracy with oligarchical aspects, a tyrannical warrior class, and corrupt philosopher king; anyway, how one reads Plato and comes away with that answer… I do not know; anyway, it is interesting note, but a different story that I’ll examine another time).

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”.

Citations

  1. Kallipolis
  2. Aristotle’s Politics
  3. Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle


"What is a Polity?" is tagged with: Left–right Politics, Plato. Aristotle. and Other Greek Philosophers

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