Introduction and Research Question
Aristotle and Revolution
Tocqueville and Revolution (in comparison to Aristotle)
Marx and Revolution (in comparison to Aristotle and Tocqueville)
Introduction and Research Question
Long before sociology became established as a distinct discipline of the social sciences, scholars have studied the social causes of revolution. Aristotle dedicated one whole book of his Politics to the sources and possible remedies of revolutions, Alexis de Tocqueville named one of the most famous chapters of his Democracy in America“Why great revolutions will become rare”, and Karl Marx wrote nearly all his works under the notion of an inevitable revolution of the proletariat. So what are the differences and similarities in analyses of these three famous writers?
To answer this question, I will introduce the relevant theses of every writer and compare those theses along different dimensions. The first and most basic variable is the group of people that is addressed by the writer. This, in turn, has important consequences for another variable: How is revolution evaluated? Should it be prevented? If yes, how? Answering these questions will help us to define the causes for revolutions given by the three authors. As a last step, I will analyse how revolution and democracy relate in these theories. I hope that, as a result, we will get a helpful insight in an important aspect of the writings of these three great scholars of sociology.
Aristotle and Revolution
One of the striking features of Aristotle’s Politics is its clear dedication to lawgivers and statesmen. This is especially true for Book V of this work, which is concerned with the “Causes of Factual Conflict and Constitutional Change”. Most of this book reads like a handbook for good governance. It is also obvious that Aristotle is genuinely averse to faction and revolution. Since the city-state resembles an organism (Aristotle, I.2.1253a18), and its constitution is like its soul, revolution is synonymous to the death of this organism (Aristotle, III.3.1276b1).
Aristotle gives us a long list of potential causes of “factional conflict” (in Book V). He divides them into general causes of conflict in all political systems (V.1-4) and into causes of conflict for every particular political system (Aristotle, V.1.5-7,10-11). I will mainly focus on the general causes here. Those can be divided into “(1) the state of mind which leads to faction; (2) the objects which are at stake; and (3) the causes which give rise to political disturbance and factional disputes” (Aristotle, V.2.1302a16). The state of mind that leads to faction can be seen as the most general cause that Aristotle finds in a state. Different interpretations of justice and equality lead to the making of different claims by different parties (Aristotle, V.1.1301a25). Some who have less, but feel equal to those who have more, develop a “passion for equality” (Aristotle, V.2.1302a22). Others who feel superior to others, but have the same, develop a “passion for inequality” (Aristotle, V.2.1302a22). If the discontented party (whichever it is) is powerful enough, these factional disputes can lead to a change in the constitution. Here, Aristotle makes an interesting distinction between factions “directed against the existing constitution” and factions “not directed against the existing constitution” (Aristotle, V.1.1301b4). Though Aristotle rarely uses these words himself, this distinction can be seen as one between revolution and reform. Factional conflict can thus lead to either of these constitutional changes. The problem, however, is that Aristotle mainly lists the causes for factional conflicts in general and rarely distinguishes between causes that will lead to revolutions and causes that will lead to reform. It would go beyond the scope of this paper to list and explain all the causes for factional conflict that Aristotle specifies. This would also strongly complicate our comparison. I will therefore try to generalize Aristotle’s arguments.
Aristotle’s general ideal is moderation. This ideal can be applied to constitutions, rulers, and the population of a city-state. Therefore, the ideal society can be described as a homogenous group of people with a large middle-class which possesses a moderate and adequate property, and that ideally outnumbers the upper class (the rich) and the lower class (the poor). The ideal constitution should mirror this and vest the main power in the middle class (Aristotle, IV.11.1295b34). Furthermore, it should not rely on only one of the interpretations of justice but mix both of them so that it can neither be described as a democracy (passion for equality dominant) nor an oligarchy (passion for inequality dominant): “A properly mixed constitution should look as if it contained both democratic and oligarchic elements – and as if it contained neither” (Aristotle, IV.10.1294b13). The same applies to the ideal ruler(s) of a state: they should not be arrogant, demagogic, too mighty, too oppressive, or partial for one of the classes of society (ideally, they come out of the middle-class). Furthermore, everyone who is able to hold an office properly should be able to do so. Only then the most stable form of political association can be reached: a polis with a just constitution and just rulers, whose inhabitants – living in happy harmony with their constitution – do not think of fighting each other or their rulers (Aristotle, V.9.1310a12). Everything that distinguishes an actual society from this ideal of moderation (on either of the three levels mentioned) is a potential for conflict, or even revolution. However, as Aristotle acknowledges that such an ideal society is not very realistic, he sees democracy as the preferable political system among the feasible alternatives: “it must be admitted that democracy is a form of government which is safer, and less vexed by faction, than oligarchy” (Aristotle, V.2.1301b39). Regarding the class system, his second-best solution is a two-class system with the stronger class in power: “for where either side has a clear preponderance, the other will be unwilling to risk a struggle with the side which is obviously the stronger” (Aristotle, V.5.1304a38).
 However, the obvious problem with this requirement, how to find out if someone is able to fill his position, is never satisfyingly solved by Aristotle.
 In this regard, Aristotle seems to be neutral towards the question which class should be in power. For him, the most important question is stability, which can most likely be secured with the stronger class in power, regardless of which class that is.
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- Institution / Hochschule
- University of British Columbia – Department of Anthropology and Sociology
- A (87%)
- Sociology Revolution Comparative Analysis Aristotle Tocqueville Marx Classical Sociological Theory