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Aristotle and Natural Inequality

by David Foss

With his emphasis on the need for political life to recognize and take account of the inequities of nature, Aristotle’s Politics might seem antiegalitarian. Upon a closer examination, it is not clear that an account of natural inequities in aptitude among individuals necessarily precludes any notion of political equality. Indeed, Aristotle develops a very complex vision of the sorts of equality and inequality which are politically relevant in the context of assessing the regime (politeia).

A notion of natural inequality is central to Aristotle’s conception of humanity, with a view to both individual and communal living. It is a binding principle in the conception of the City (polis) as the highest form of partnership (koinonia), and even forms the basis for establishing the necessity of partnership itself. In an important sense, inequality not only makes the political life desirable, but necessary, if one wishes not only to live, but to live well. For Aristotle, individual human excellence (areté) is only truly possible when pursued in partnership.

If we accept Aristotle’s contention that individuals are naturally unequal, and may even be ranked along a politically relevant criterion (most especially areté), it seems odd for us to be able to speak of political equality in any sense.

To understand Aristotle’s notion of political equality (inasmuch as he can be said to hold such a notion), the exact nature of inequality needs to be clarified. A general understanding of the way in which natural inequality is expressed in the political context needs to be developed. In the process, it will be helpful to notice Aristotle’s treatment of those individuals at the extremes of a hierarchy of areté: specifically the Slave and the Hero; and how these effect the shape of the regime in which they live. Beyond these apparent anomalies in naturalistic stature, his notion of proportional inequality and the corresponding distribution of shares in power will be more fairly seen as a kind of political equality. As to whether this final conception of political equality is strongly suggestive of social democracy, or the antithesis of it, it will more appropriately be seen as neither.


For Aristotle, what is natural inequality? Indeed, we should first ask, what is nature? In Book I, chapter 2, of the Politics, Aristotle states it most simply:

... [What] each thing is — for example, a human being, a horse, or a household — when its coming into being is complete is, we assert, the nature of that thing. Again, that for the sake of which [a thing exists], or the end, is what is best; and self sufficiency is an end and what is best.[1]

A thing’s nature is seen not merely as its state of affairs at any one point in time, but rather as its teleological terminus. It is the end toward which its existence is oriented. But here at least, Aristotle seems to suggest that all human beings, insofar as they are political animals, possess the same nature. They are, on this level, all equal.

Inequality, on the level of individual nature, is revealed more gradually. During his criticisms of Plato’s Republic, he says:

... Now the city is made up not only of a number of human beings, but also of human beings differing in kind: a city does not arise from persons who are similar.[2]

Continuing, in his discussion on citizenship, he again speaks of differences among individuals. The inequality expressed concerns virtue (specifically the relationship between the virtue of the citizen and the virtue of the individual as such), but can be seen as a discussion of the more general relationship between the nature of certain regimes and the nature of human beings individually:

... if it is impossible for a city to consist entirely of excellent persons, yet if each should perform his own work well, and this [means] out of virtue, there would still not be a single virtue of the citizen and the good man, for it is impossible for all citizens to be similar.[3]

A distinction is drawn between virtue with respect to the regime and virtue generally. It seems the nature of the human being with respect to a political life is distinct from the nature of the human being individually. But recall that the human being is by nature a political animal. So, in fact, the discussion of political virtue (just in the case of the regime one would pray for) does concern primarily those aspects of human nature which may properly be said to differ among individuals. That there is inequality between individuals with respect to the virtue of citizenship is derived from necessity.

In order to illuminate this notion of inequality, Aristotle points to a series of common ‘natural’ distinctions, based upon wealth and the division of labor. Very roughly, a possible realistic partitioning of citizens by sort reveals the following classes: the multitude (or farmers); the vulgar; the marketing element; the laboring element; the warrior element; the heavy-armed element (those who enforce); the well off; and the magisterial element.[4] Although these are simply distinctions based upon endoxa, Aristotle distills from them at least one distinction of fairly general political relevance: the distinction between the poor and wealthy. An additional ‘middling’ element joins these two as the essential kinds of citizens.

These distinctions, while primarily following the criterion of wealth, mirror the distinctions on the basis of (political) virtue. In this second case, the extremes are the Slave and the Hero.


The Slave is that individual who is only capable of being ruled. The Hero, often termed a god among men, is that individual who is only capable of ruling. Both determinations are based upon the extent to which the individual possesses political virtue (prudence).

In the case of the Slave, who is such by nature, it is relatively easy to understand what Aristotle has in mind. The Slave’s condition is that under which prudence may be recognized but not initiated:

... For he is a slave by nature who is capable of belonging to another — which is also why he belongs to another — and who participates in reason only to the extent of perceiving it, but does not have it.[5]

In effect, the Slave is outside the regime, related to it in the form of a simple tool. This is not to suggest that, for Aristotle, the Slave is superfluous to the City. (On the contrary, the Slave makes possible leisure for the Master — which, in turn, is a practical requisite for the participation of the Master in the regime.) It should be noticed, however, that the importance of the Slave for the regime is in the form of technological utility, and only accidentally a participant in the regime itself.

The case of the Hero is slightly more illuminating with respect to Aristotle’s notion of varying degrees of prudence. Still, the caricature again places such an individual outside normal political life. The Hero is so distinguished on account of virtue that citizenship (understood as the appropriate participation in ruling) is moot with respect to the other people of the city. Aristotle explains the possibility:

If there is one person so outstanding by his excess of virtue — or a number of persons, though not enough to provide a full complement for the city — that the virtue of all the others and their political capacity is not commensurable with their own (if there are a number) or his alone (if there is one), such persons can no longer be regarded as part of the city. For they will be done an injustice if it is claimed they merit equal things in spite of being so unequal in virtue and political capacity; for such a person would likely be like a god among human beings.[6]

The Hero, or king by nature, singly possesses authority by the weight of virtue. Under such conditions, such an inequality would exist between the Hero and the people (whether wealthy, free, or vulgar) that all would stand in the relation of slave to master. Such an inequality could arise by two distinct paths: that it is the nature of the multitude to be significantly inferior (to what might commonly be thought of as a normal dispensation); or that it is the nature of the Hero to be significantly superior.

What is apt for kingship, then, is a multitude of such a sort that it accords with its nature to support a family that is preeminent in virtue relative to political leadership... Now when it happens that a whole family, or even some one person among the rest, is so outstanding in virtue that this virtue is more preeminent than that of all the rest, it is just in that case that the family be a kingly one and have authority over all matters, or that this one person be a king.[7]

It is this second case which is distinctively troubling. In the first instance, the multitude is imagined to lack adequate virtue to rule themselves if they were without the Hero: they are like the Slave, necessarily in need of a master. In the second instance, the multitude may indeed possess sufficient virtue for self governance, but is overwhelmed by the perfection of the Hero. Aristotle seems to recognize this:

... among similar and equal persons it is neither advantageous nor just for one person to have authority over all [matters], regardless of whether there are laws or not and he acts as law himself, whether he and they are good or not, and even whether he is better in respect to virtue — unless it is in a certain manner.[8]

It might be objected that the case of the Hero is one in which we are no longer talking of ‘similar and equal persons.’ But the equality here appears to be distinguished from the possession of greater or lesser virtue. Equality is spoken of in the sense of a very general capacity for participation in the regime (the possession of a kind of minimum of prudence):

A citizen in the common sense is one who shares in ruling and being ruled; but he differs in accordance with each regime. In the case of the best regime, he is one who is capable of and intentionally chooses being ruled and ruling with a view to the life in accordance with virtue.[9]

So in one sense, the Hero is no longer a citizen (as it is never in the Hero’s nature to choose to be ruled). In another, the Hero is the only citizen, for no one else possesses enough virtue to be capable of choosing not to be ruled with respect to the Hero. The Hero’s city therefore functions like a household, and although Aristotle hold’s that the monarchy is a correct regime (and the Hero can be nothing other than the highest sort of monarch), it is hard to see that this is a regime at all.

In the end, the Slave and the Hero, as caricatures of the possible, seem to be only that. What lie between these extremes are the common participants in political life. They are neither so distinguished from one another to warrant the identification of an isolated Hero, nor so similar to one another to eliminate the benefits of partnership generally. To make sense of such subtle inequalities, Aristotle develops a notion of proportional equality.


The popular basis for appropriate claims on shares in ruling are listed as: the well born, the free, the wealthy, and those in possession of justice and military virtue. All these things are necessary for the city to exist, and (in the case of the final two) be finely administered.[10] Because the functioning of the city involves more than merely ruling and being ruled (strictly speaking), but encompasses many functions, each of these criteria have a role to play in political life. But Aristotle dismisses any claim to rule exclusively, upon the basis of only one of these categories, with the exception of prudence (the possession of justice). Any of the other attributes in conjunction with prudence may give an individual higher claim, but in isolation they do not carry any relevance for the process of ruling.

With respect to inequality itself, Aristotle says:

... that everyone strives for living well and for happiness is evident. It is open to some to achieve these things, but others not, on account of some sort of fortune or nature; for living nobly requires certain equipment too — less of it for those in a better state, more for those in a worse one.[11]

This natural inequality, exists in technical skill and art, as well as in virtue. But Aristotle identifies the city as that association in which the disparity in virtue may be minimized, while not diminishing each person’s individuality with respect to practical skill.

Hence we pray for the city to be constituted on the basis of what one would pray for in those matters over which fortune has authority,.., but the city’s being excellent is no longer the work of fortune, but of knowledge and intentional choice.[12]

That an individual’s nature concerning their aptitude with respect to virtue can be improved is suggested by his observation:

For [men] act in many ways contrary to their habituation and their nature through reason, if they are persuaded that some other condition is better.[13]

Prudence, or political virtue, is a practical virtue and thereby not simply a function of the faculty of reason: but reason in the context of community. The equality which is spoken of properly pertaining to every human being (aside from the Slave) is the absolute capacity for reason. But the good political life is more than merely applied reason. It is true that for Aristotle, virtue, as habituated practical excellence, rests on reason as a necessary requisite. However, reason is not sufficient for virtue. It is in the degree to which an individual is properly educated and socially situated that virtue is attained. To the extent that these, in turn, are contingent upon individual nature (such as natural aptitudes which make one a better artist, carpenter, trader, and so forth), each individual is in some sense limited as to the highest level of prudence they may obtain.

However, a good regime appears to be the sort which will minimize the effect of disparate nature between its citizens. In the end, the most important factor in any individual’s capacity for attaining political virtue is leisure, and the habituated ‘knowledge’ concerning how one properly utilizes it:

There is, then, a need for much [of the virtue of] justice and much moderation on the part of those who are held to act in the best way and who have all the gratifications that are regarded as blessings,... For these will be most particularly in need of philosophy and moderation and [the virtue of] justice to the extent that they are at leisure in the midst of an abundance of good things of this sort.[14]

Without leisure, the benefit of justice upon the individual is almost accidental. Such an individual, often referred to by Aristotle as vulgar, does not easily partake in the virtue of a good regime. Regardless of natural inclination or capacity, the vulgar will be unable to improve character.

The image of proportional equality, and the role of natural inequality, in Aristotle’s Politics may seem to be suggestive of a form of social democracy. Depending upon what is meant by social democracy, this conclusion may have some merit. If it is understood as a system in which the accidental conditions of birth (who one’s parents are, wealth, neighborhood, etc.) are somehow made no longer relevant with respect to an individual’s share in power, then Aristotle would probably not agree. The accidental fortunes of personal situation are extremely relevant in the distribution of offices and the role an individual should play in their regime. If we soften the stand, to propose that social democracy merely demands a regime which speaks to each of its members in their particularity, and demands that each rises to the best of his or er ability from within the context of their ‘accidental’ situation, then he would probably have greater sympathy.

Fundamentals of Political Theory
PHIL-505-01, Georgetown University
Fall 1991
(© David Foss, October 3, 1991)

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Last modified August 27, 1998

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