The relationship between equality and democracy in Aristotle’s Politics and in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Prompt: Analyze the relationship between equality and democracy in Aristotle’s Politics and in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. What types of equality are needed, according to each of the authors, to give rise to democracy, and what types of equality are intrinsically parts of it? Furthermore, considering both texts, is it possible for one to have his cake and it eat too? More exactly, when considering the problems of equality, is it possible for a society with a democratic social state (in Tocquevillean terms), while avoiding a despotic regime, to give rise to an Aristotelian polity? If so, can we see any elements of that happening in Tocqueville’s description of the U.S.?

We begin this investigation by looking into Aristotle’s Politics. Aristotle initially classifies political regimes in Book 3, Chapter VII by two criteria: whether the purpose of the rulers is the common good or not, and what the size of the ruling class is (one, few, many). Thus, there are six combinations of regimes, three correct (kingship, aristocracy, polity) and three deviated (tyranny, oligarchy, democracy). What many people commonly associate today with democracy (majority rule) is represented in two of these regimes: polity (many rule for the common good) and democracy (many rule for the good of a particular part of society).

This initial simplistic classification of regimes is revised continuously by Aristotle in the books that follow, adding ever more nuances and tensions in his classification of the regimes. For example, Aristotle asks (in III.9): if the majority is rich in a democracy, is it still a democracy or should we call this oligarchy, since the rich rule? Or if a poor minority rules the society, can it still be called an oligarchy? These problems arose because people in his time (and in our time) commonly associate oligarchy with the rule of the rich, and democracy with the rule of the common people or the poor. This was not a groundless association, since in almost every case of a deviated regime, when a minority ruled it tended to be rich, and when the majority ruled they tended to be made of the poorer classes (1279b 34-37). The solution Aristotle offers to this is that wherever the poor are part the ruling class, we call that regime a democracy (if of course it’s a deviated regime, interested in the good of only one part of the polis), and wherever the rich rule because of their wealth (which implies the need for a society to consider wealth meritous), we call that an oligarchy (1279b 34 – 1280a 6). This of course raises further questions and tensions, like for example: if we have five poor men, ruling over 100.000 rich men, what do we call that regime? A democracy? It seems far away from any conception that we initially had of it, and it shows that there is still work to be done with the classification of the regimes, since when five people rule a hundred thousand, a word that means “rule of the people” is no longer appropriate. A defense in this case for Aristotle’s classification would be of course that such a thing is highly improbable to happen, and Aristotle is basing his detailing of the regimes on empirical facts. Still, it would be worthwhile to have a complete framework that can properly (though not comprehensively) describe any type of regime and fit them into itself. Since for example, it would be possible that in a highly religious society, five poor people would end up ruling a hundred thousand, without any consultation with the public, and for such a situation democracy would not be the best of words to describe such a society.

Nevertheless, we must press on with our inquiry, and returned to the problem at hand. From our investigation so far into Aristotelian thought, we can assemble two revised definitions for the regimes we are interested on: a regime is a polity when it is ruled by many, and its purpose is the common good, and it is a democracy when its purpose is not the common good, and the poor partake in the governing of the state.

Before moving on and discussing equality for Aristotle, it is necessary to discuss his notion of justice in his Politics, which infuses and propagates through his whole ethical classification of regimes. For Aristotle, there seem to be two concepts of justice in Politics, one general (coming perhaps from his Nicomachean Ethics) which states that “justice is the common benefit”, and one more specific, a justice that is “something to someone”, and concerns itself with “some sort of equality” (quotations from 1282b 14-22). This specific kind of justice [1] is concerned with giving the same thing to people who are equal, and with giving different things with people who are unequal. In modern terms, we would call this concern distributive justice.

But people have different notions of justice, stemming from misunderstandings of equality or which equality matters for what purpose (1280a 7- 23), and this gives rise to the desire and foundation of different types of regimes (1301a 25-28). People in democratic regimes tend to falsely believe that since they are equal in one respect (freedom) they must be equal in all respects (1301a 28-30). Thus they consider each completely equal to all the others, including in merit, and so go for a numerical kind of justice. The majority is the one that has the right to decide for the state as a whole. People in oligarchic regimes mistakenly believe that since they are unequal in one respect (wealth) they must be unequal in all others (1301a 30-33). Thus they desire and found a regime in which participation in the political body and decision-making is proportional to one’s merit, which they consider to be wealth. But according to Aristotle, this is also wrong. Participation in the political body should be according to one’s merit, but the value which is chosen to represent merit is key. Aristotle argues that since a city-state (polis) is founded and defined by its purpose of enabling its citizens to live well, than shares in governing a city-state should be given in accordance to that which pertains to living well, which is virtue (1281a 1-7). Thus, a just regime is one which accords people with equal virtue equal shares in the governance of the city-state (as kingship, aristocracy, and polity do).

Justice is also very important for Aristotle since differences in how they understand it are what makes people desire to change the regime they are living in. Once people start having different conceptions of distributive justice, and of what approach to equality is correct and fair, then faction will arise and people will desire to change their regime to another one. An interesting connection that we can make here is with Plato’s Republic, which Aristotle also often references in his Politics. If Socrates wanted to start his interlocutors on the path of changing the constitution (regime, politeia) of their soul, what is the perfect question to ask, if not “What is Justice?” ? Whereas if one wants regime stability, than according to Aristotle, one should seek above all “equality in accordance with merit”, which is the current type of accepted justice in a society (merit can mean wealth for oligarchy, virtue for non-deviated regimes, or it can be completely the same for  every person in democracies), “and the possesion of private property” (1307a 25-27).

With these notions in mind, let’s turn our attention to democracy and equality, and asks ourselves two critical questions: “What types of equality or inequality are needed for democracy to arise?” and “Which types of equality or inequality must exist simultaneously with a democracy, or in other words what types of equality does the Aristotelian notion of democracy necessarily include or give rise to?”.

First, according to Aristole, if you want to change a regime, then you need some kind of inequality, since a perception of inequality causes strife and is the main cause of regime change (1302a 22-32). This perception depends on the people’s understanding of justice. Thus, if people, according to what they believe justice is, perceive a kind of inequality, then the wheels of change start moving. Next, if you want this change to give rise to a democracy, then you need the people that are unsatisfied with the current state of affairs to have an equality of opinion, in so far as they need to share a democratic understanding of justice. Last but not least, before you can get your democracy, you need the people who have this equality of opinion to have more power than the one’s that are against a democratic regime. [2]

Once you have a democracy, you need to maintain this equality of opinion about the notice of justice. This can be achieved through education, which is one of the possible reasons why Aristotle considers it of foremost importance to the survival of a regime (1310a 12-35). This education (or propaganda, depending on how you approach it) will also need to involve some equality of access to it, for a few or for most people depending on the situation, since you need to educate a critical mass of people that would have enough power to defend the current constitution in case of need. Furthermore, in order to maintain a democracy, you need to continuously ensure that the ones who have the same opinion about it being maintained continue to have more power than those who are against the constitution.

Now that we have analyzed the fundamental types of equalities that must go along with democracies, we can go on and look at polities.  In order for a polity to arise, you also need an initial inequality, perceived by some according to their different notion of justice. If you are starting from a deviated regime, then these people must have a notion of distributive justice based on virtue, so that they would want to change to a just and proper regime. Furthermore, as with democracies, these people who share this belief must have enough power to enact the regime change. If on the other hand you are starting from a just non-deviated regime, than you need more equality of virtue between its different citizens, and the regime should naturally transform itself into a polity (since its virtuous rulers will realize that that is the proper thing to do). As for the kinds of equality needed for a polity to survive, they are the same fundamental kinds as for a democracy: equality of opinion on the notice of justice, and equality of access to education for enough people in order to ensure the regime’s survival.

Whereas for Aristotle the notion of justice that people have gives rise to their preference and desire for a certain regime, Tocqueville attributes a desire and tendency for a political regime to something he calls the social state of a people. In his work, Democracy in America, Tocqueville mentions two types of social state: democratic (on which we will focus) and aristocratic. He never directly defines what a democratic social state is, but a careful reader can infer from its usage a definition good enough to work with and approach the subject at hand.

A democratic social state is one in which a society has at least a minimum level of equality of opportunity and equality of conditions (equality of outcome). In this social state, the equality of conditions gives rise to a desire for even more equality of conditions (p. 479). This is crucial for understanding his whole work.

This democratic social state appears in a society once there are enough ways in which people can gain power, regardless of their current conditions. People will naturally try to improve their condition, and once they have managed to shrink the inequality between them and their superiors, they will desire even more to reduce the remaining inequality. This will lead to a self-sustaining and self-increasing effect that although not invincible, if left unchecked or not confronted by significant opposite forces, will only serve to increase the equality of conditions of that society. This is the situation that Tocqueville presents to have been happening in his native France, and it is useful to look at it in order to better understand how such a process works. 700 years ago, there was only “one origin of power to be discovered” and that was landed property. Then other ways appeared with which one could gain power: by joining the clergy, by becoming a jurist, by going into commerce, by going into science and becoming a lettered person. In all of these a wide range of persons could participate, since they involved thinking and using your mind, as a prerequisite for obtaining the job. Knowledge became power, and knowledge is something that more and more people could have, regardless of their condition of birth. The more possibilities to gain power in society, regardless of the conditions you were born in, increased the equality of conditions of the society. This gave rise, over time, to a democratic social state.

According to Tocqueville, this democratic social state, since it is characterized first and foremost by a love of equality, can lead to two possible political outcomes: either society will organize itself in a democratic political body in which all citizens have rights, or towards a tyrannical despotic regime in which all are equal by being subjugated to a single ruler (pp. 52-53). Here we can see one of the reasons that his work is so crucial for him. Since he considers that his time is characterized by a democratic social state that has past a certain point, and acquired a virtually unstoppable tendency towards more equality, it is of the utmost importance to learn how to channel this force into creating a democratic political regime, instead of a despotic one.

Another danger of this tendency towards more and more equality of conditions is that over the long-term this seems to lead towards a situation in which goods are divided equally to everybody in society, regardless of merit and/or need. Tocqueville acknowledges this, considers it a problem and on p. 431 discusses possible solutions to it. One option would be that a central government would be in charge of distributing them according to merit. Tocqueville is against this, and he argues for restoring a kind of equality of opportunity into society (p. 431). A possible interpretation of his solution is that by educating people (by giving them “equal enlightenment”) and ensuring an equality of chances (giving “equal independence to all”) we would be able to redirect their ardent desire for more equality of conditions, towards a desire and an acceptance of equality of opportunity. He mentions that the inequality of outcome should be left up to the “natural inequality”, a position which today would need to be laid out very carefully and in detail before being accepted. For example, should physically handicapped people be helped to go to school, since mentally they have as much potential as anybody else, or should they be left on their own, trying to slowly and arduously walk to school? A possible solution to account for such cases is to allow only for specific natural inequality – when it comes to a physically handicapped person trying to succeed in a mental activity, he should be helped and made as equal as possible with others from a physical perspective (bionic legs, attendant, wheelchair, etc.), but given just the same attention as other people when it comes to the mental perspective. In any case, if society is to best use its resources, and to avoid stagnation, it seems that the democratic social state’s tendency towards perfect equality of conditions will have to be stopped somehow, or human nature modified so that there is no longer any kind of natural inequality (which might be far from desirable).

Tocqueville sets out to observe democracy in America, because he wants to see what the democratic social state can lead to. He considers that the equality of conditions propagates into every part of society, such as the public spirit, the laws, the maxims of those who govern, the particular habits of the governed, their political mores, and over the entire civil society (p. 3). In fact he says that the equality of conditions is “the generative fact from which each particular fact seemed to issue” (p. 3) and that he found it as the central point at which all his observations came to an end (p. 3). Thus, the social state of a people infuses itself deep into society, and its presence can be felt and deduced from most parts of it.

We know that this social state can lead either to ultimate despotism or to a democratic regime. But in the case of America, which is clearly not (yet) a despotic regime, is the democratic regime, in Aristotelian terms, going to be a polity or a deviated version of it? Can it even be a polity? Tocqueville’s description of America seems to tend more towards a polity than towards its corrupted counterpart. One of the founding documents of an American colony reads:

“And by virtue hereof, do enact, constitute and frame such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions and officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.” (p. 35)

With virtue as its foundation, government of the many, and general good as its purpose, this colonial political body fits perfectly into the criteria of a polity from Aristotle. Did this tendency towards a polity that America had at birth maintain over the next centuries? It seems so. The American government has both democratic (in Aristotelian terms) and oligarchic elements. Its representative government ensures that a minority rules, but that minority is ruled by the people. The rich have significant influence over the political system, since they are able to influence public opinion through mass media, but at the end of the day, they do need the consent of the majority in order to implement their will.

Still, can Aristotle’s notion of polity and Tocqueville’s notion of democracy truly coexist? Can a society that is characterized by significant equality of conditions, and a strong desire for more of it, be able to maintain a notion of distributive justice based on virtue? Or will its desire for more equality engulf its notion of justice over time, and twist it towards believing that everybody has equal merit, and thus everybody should have an equal share in the political body?

I believe that a democratic social state can lead to a political regime that is a polity, and that the key to achieving this is a properly implemented representative democracy. A representative democracy requires a citizen to choose between a set of persons, on the basis of which of them can rule and represent him better (and one could say that in an Ancient Greek sense, there can be a virtue (arête) of ruling representing somebody). Thus, he will constantly be reminded of the notion that some are better at ruling than others, and he will also be constantly required to develop and think about his notion of what makes a good ruler, or more exactly what virtue a ruler needs to have. Furthermore, the higher a politican’s function, the more he reminds the common people by his function and existence, that there is a difference between people in virtue in governing. Not all people are equal when it comes to government. A local councilor is better than the common man, a senator is better than a local councilor, and a president is better than a senator (or at least in theory, since the selection process is a lot more competitive). Not surprisingly is the President’s wife, even in a society like America where the driving force seems to be equality, still called the “First Lady” (implying of course that her husband is the “First Man”). Thus, in a representative democracy, the notion of political virtue will be constantly engendered into the citizen, and along with it the notion of distributive justice based on virtue (one should partake in the government of the country proportional to how much political virtue he has). It is not a given of course, that any representative democracy will manage to remain a polity, and not degenerate into an Aristotelian democracy, but the seed for its protection is there.


  • Politics, Aristotle, translated by C.D.C. Reeve, Hackett Publishing Company (1998)
  • Democracy in America,, Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop, The University of Chicago Press (2000)

[1] I adopt the terms general and specific kind of justice from Miller, Fred, “Aristotle’s Political Theory”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
[2] It is also important to keep in mind when discussing a faction between two groups based on opinion, that when one judges the power of one of these groups, it should also include in such an assessment the influence the group has over public opinion, and thus the capability to attract more people (neutral or from the other side) to its cause.
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