Aristotle, Polybius, and Methods of Political Theory

Last week, I started transitioning from Plato into Cicero by reading about two political theorists who came between them, Aristotle and Polybius. Plato practically never references history in his political philosophy; he does not rely on real-world evidence for his conclusions, sticking to abstract accounts of the development of a theoretical city. In his Republic, he also relies on a parallel between soul and city, describing how the appetites (one of the three parts of the soul according to Plato) of a city’s rulers lead to instability and decline. Aristotle, Plato’s student, moves away from this method, introducing historical evidence to go along with his philosophical arguments. Polybius, more of a historian than a political philosopher, goes further in that direction. He describes a set of three constitutions based on the number of rulers, kingship (rule by the one), aristocracy (by the few), and democracy (by the many). These forms are good, but they have deviant counterparts. So, Polybius suggests that a mixed constitution, one that combines elements of the three, is best, an idea that actually goes back to Plato (in other dialogues, not the Republic) and Aristotle. This ensures stability, as the three parts of government provide a check on each other’s power. Polybius says the Roman constitution is a perfect example of this mixed system, with the consuls, senate, and people filling in the three roles (a good example of Polybius’ real-world, historical analysis instead of pure philosophy). Cicero adopts a similar political philosophy to Polybius, critiquing Plato’s refusal to consider history and promoting a mixed system. As I continue to read Cicero (which I have started this week), I will be looking to see where he falls on this history-philosophy spectrum, as well as other differences with Plato like ethics versus practicality and psychological analysis versus thinking about systems of power.