Ancient and modern

Aristotle on winning the centre ground

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

5 October 2013

9:00 AM

Party conferences always provide the most agreeable spectacle of politicians desperately trying to appeal to both the diehards among the party faithful and the soft underbelly of the general public. Aristotle (384-322 bc) lived at a time when democratic and oligarchic groupings within any polis (city-state) were regularly in conflict to impose their system of government, and was all too aware of the problem.

In his Politics, Aristotle began by reflecting on the advantages that these two different systems of government offered to citizens within a polis. Democracy, he concluded, appeals to the many poor, because it gives them a say in the assembly, but oligarchy to the rich few, who use their birth, wealth and influence to run the show. But no polis, he goes on, will be stable unless those who wish it to continue as either a democracy or oligarchy dominate those who do not. But that raises a problem: the more dominant the one or other becomes, the further it will be tempted to go in order to entrench its power, and that will result in instability.


Aristotle sees the ‘middle people’, those uncommitted to either system, as the solution to this problem; for whichever system is dominant, it will succeed only if the middle are harmonised within it. The reason seems to be that this ‘accommodated middle’ will not only ensure the numerical superiority of the dominant system but also, because of that superiority, the dominant will not have to go to extremes in order to entrench itself. The consequence will be a far greater degree of stability, and therefore the prospect of a longer period in power.

For this reason, Aristotle argues, even the extremists on either side should understand that it is in their own interests to win over the middle ground, because ‘wherever the middle people outweigh a combination of the two extremes, or even only one extreme, there is a good chance of permanence for that system of government’.

Diehards, therefore, moderate the death wish.

Peter Jones’s Veni Vidi Vici, a history of Rome, is now published (Atlantic Books).

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  • crosscop

    Centre ground? Aristotle would be amazed to discover that today any opposition to Asians and Africans colonising Europe is regarded by the political classes as extremism.

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