Aristotle's Theory of Revolution: Looking at the Lockean Side

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This article provides a detailed account of the theory of revolution presented in Books IV-VI of Aristotle's Politics and argues that despite important differences of emphasis, rhetoric, and tone, there is a surprising degree of similarity to the theory of revolution familiar to Americans from John Locke's Second Treatise of Government. Aristotle and Locke share the views that governments must avoid oppressing their subjects if they are to avoid being overthrown, that revolution against oppressive rulers is inevitable, that security for property would have a central place in the avoidance of oppression, and that the succumbing to the temptations of power on the part of ruling groups is the fundamental provocation of revolution. This aspect of Aristotle's political thought has been little noticed, but is an important dimension of it. Moreover, it provides a certain depth of insight into that side of Locke's thought that most sharply contrasts with Hobbes's thought, namely Locke's distrust of the corrupting force of political power.

In Books IV-VI of Politics Aristotle supplemented the Socratic options for stemming abuses of political power--the teaching of moderation and the luring of potential tyrants toward philosophy--by invoking the low but solid ground of the rulers' self-interest in staying in power. The core premises of the Aristotelian teaching on sedition are essentially a "crime doesn't pay" story for rulers. These premises were then available for Locke's much later elaboration when he--like Aristotle suspicious of the corrupting force of political power--needed an alternative to Hobbes's absolutist political conclusions.

This claim about the core of Aristotle's teaching on sedition sheds significant new light on Aristotle's maxim that the political theorist must elaborate not only the best regime for an ideal situation but should also provide guidance for politics "based on a [given] presupposition" (Politics IV, 1, 1288b 28-30).1 Locke's supposition is emphatically that what people want from politics is the preservation of their lives, liberties, and properties. Aristotle argues in Book III that people form their political association for the good life, a life of happiness, or human flourishing. Happiness requires that people of good character be formed. But it turns out in Books IV-VI that, while a few are motivated by the desire for honor, most people most of the time are motivated by concern for their property and their physical dignity and security. Genuinely good people, who have the desire and capacity to serve the public good, rarely hold political power. Even when they do hold power, their appetites and passions open them to being corrupted if legal institutions are not structured in such a way as to check their power (III, 3: 1287a 31-32). Consequently, the "given supposition" typically in play in Aristotle's prescriptions for real-world politics may be not so far from the world that Locke describes.

The argument here does not rely on a view that John Locke was some sort of latter-day Thomist, who like St. Thomas took his bearings from a law of nature that amounted to an adaptation of the concept of natural justice, or what was right according to nature, found in Aristotle.2 To the contrary, one can take as a point of departure that: "It is on the basis of Hobbes's view of the law of nature that Locke opposes Hobbes's conclusions. He tries to show that Hobbes's principle--the right of self-preservation--far from favoring absolute government, requires limited government" (Strauss 1953: 231-32; for a similar view see also Cox 1960 and 1982; Macpherson 1962; Goldwin 1987; M. Zuckert 1994: 234-237 and 240; but cf. Grant 1987; Simmons 1993, and the preponderance of Locke scholarship cited therein for the view that Locke's state of nature differs radically from that of Hobbes). Whatever may be Locke's similarities with Hobbes, it is nonetheless clear that those of Locke's "conclusions" that amount to his theory of revolution openly, deliberately, and directly opposed Hobbes's view condemning revolutionary resistance to oppressive government (as expressed, e. …