Of Offices Or Magistrates In Governments

Self-Educated American, Classics Library

Aristotle: “Politics”, Book Four, Part 15, 350 B.C.E.

Next we will proceed to consider the distribution of offices; this too, being a part of politics concerning which many questions arise: What shall their number be? Over what shall they preside, and what shall be their duration? Sometimes they last for six months, sometimes for less; sometimes they are annual, while in other cases offices are held for still longer periods. Shall they be for life or for a long term of years; or, if for a short term only, shall the same persons hold them over and over again, or once only? Also about the appointment to them- from whom are they to be chosen, by whom, and how? We should first be in a position to say what are the possible varieties of them, and then we may proceed to determine which are suited to different forms of government. But what are to be included under the term ‘offices’? That is a question not quite so easily answered. For a political community requires many officers; and not every one who is chosen by vote or by lot is to be regarded as a ruler. In the first place there are the priests, who must be distinguished from political officers; masters of choruses and heralds, even ambassadors, are elected by vote. Some duties of superintendence again are political, extending either to all the citizens in a single sphere of action, like the office of the general who superintends them when they are in the field, or to a section of them only, like the inspectorships of women or of youth. Other offices are concerned with household management, like that of the corn measurers who exist in many states and are elected officers. There are also menial offices which the rich have executed by their slaves. Speaking generally, those are to be called offices to which the duties are assigned of deliberating about certain measures and ofjudging and commanding, especially the last; for to command is the especial duty of a magistrate. But the question is not of any importance in practice; no one has ever brought into court the meaning of the word, although such problems have a speculative interest.

What kinds of offices, and how many, are necessary to the existence of a state, and which, if not necessary, yet conduce to its well being are much more important considerations, affecting all constitutions, but more especially small states. For in great states it is possible, and indeed necessary, that every office should have a special function; where the citizens are numerous, many may hold office. And so it happens that some offices a man holds a second time only after a long interval, and others he holds once only; and certainly every work is better done which receives the sole, and not the divided attention of the worker. But in small states it is necessary to combine many offices in a few hands, since the small number of citizens does not admit of many holding office: for who will there be to succeed them? And yet small states at times require the same offices and laws as large ones; the difference is that the one want them often, the others only after long intervals. Hence there is no reason why the care of many offices should not be imposed on the same person, for they will not interfere with each other. When the population is small, offices should be like the spits which also serve to hold a lamp. We must first ascertain how many magistrates are necessary in every state, and also how many are not exactly necessary, but are nevertheless useful, and then there will be no difficulty in seeing what offices can be combined in one. We should also know over which matters several local tribunals are to have jurisdiction, and in which authority should be centralized: for example, should one person keep order in the market and another in some other place, or should the same person be responsible everywhere? Again, should offices be divided according to the subjects with which they deal, or according to the persons with whom they deal: I mean to say, should one person see to good order in general, or one look after the boys, another after the women, and so on? Further, under different constitutions, should the magistrates be the same or different? For example, in democracy, oligarchy, aristocracy, monarchy, should there be the same magistrates, although they are elected, not out of equal or similar classes of citizen but differently under different constitutions- in aristocracies, for example, they are chosen from the educated, in oligarchies from the wealthy, and in democracies from the free- or are there certain differences in the offices answering to them as well, and may the same be suitable to some, but different offices to others? For in some states it may be convenient that the same office should have a more extensive, in other states a narrower sphere. Special offices are peculiar to certain forms of government: for example that of probuli, which is not a democratic office, although a bule or council is. There must be some body of men whose duty is to prepare measures for the people in order that they may not be diverted from their business; when these are few in number, the state inclines to an oligarchy: or rather the probuli must always be few, and are therefore an oligarchical element. But when both institutions exist in a state, the probuli are a check on the council; for the counselors is a democratic element, but the probuli are oligarchical. Even the power of the council disappears when democracy has taken that extreme form in which the people themselves are always meeting and deliberating about everything. This is the case when the members of the assembly receive abundant pay; for they have nothing to do and are always holding assemblies and deciding everything for themselves. A magistracy which controls the boys or the women, or any similar office, is suited to an aristocracy rather than to a democracy; for how can the magistrates prevent the wives of the poor from going out of doors? Neither is it an oligarchical office; for the wives of the oligarchs are too fine to be controlled.

Enough of these matters. I will now inquire into appointments to offices. The varieties depend on three terms, and the combinations of these give all possible modes: first, who appoints? secondly, from whom? and thirdly, how? Each of these three admits of three varieties: (A) All the citizens, or (B) only some, appoint. Either (1) the magistrates are chosen out of all or (2) out of some who are distinguished either by a property qualification, or by birth, or merit, or for some special reason, as at Megara only those were eligible who had returned from exile and fought together against the democracy. They may be appointed either (a) by vote or (b) by lot. Again, these several varieties may be coupled, I mean that (C) some officers may be elected by some, others by all, and (3) some again out of some, and others out of all, and (c) some by vote and others by lot. Each variety of these terms admits of four modes.

For either (A 1 a) all may appoint from all by vote, or (A 1 b) all from all by lot, or (A 2 a) all from some by vote, or (A 2 b) all from some by lot (and from all, either by sections, as, for example, by tribes, and wards, and phratries, until all the citizens have been gone through; or the citizens may be in all cases eligible indiscriminately); or again (A 1 c, A 2 c) to some offices in the one way, to some in the other. Again, if it is only some that appoint, they may do so either (B 1 a) from all by vote, or (B 1 b) from all by lot, or (B 2 a) from some by vote, or (B 2 b) from some by lot, or to some offices in the one way, to others in the other, i.e., (B 1 c) from all, to some offices by vote, to some by lot, and (B 2 C) from some, to some offices by vote, to some by lot. Thus the modes that arise, apart from two (C, 3) out of the three couplings, number twelve. Of these systems two are popular, that all should appoint from all (A 1 a) by vote or (A 1 b) by lot- or (A 1 c) by both. That all should not appoint at once, but should appoint from all or from some either by lot or by vote or by both, or appoint to some offices from all and to others from some (‘by both’ meaning to some offices by lot, to others by vote), is characteristic of a polity. And (B 1 c) that some should appoint from all, to some offices by vote, to others by lot, is also characteristic of a polity, but more oligarchical than the former method. And (A 3 a, b, c, B 3 a, b, c) to appoint from both, to some offices from all, to others from some, is characteristic of a polity with a leaning towards aristocracy. That (B 2) some should appoint from some is oligarchical- even (B 2 b) that some should appoint from some by lot (and if this does not actually occur, it is none the less oligarchical in character), or (B 2 C) that some should appoint from some by both. (B 1 a) that some should appoint from all, and (A 2 a) that all should appoint from some, by vote, is aristocratic.

These are the different modes of constituting magistrates, and these correspond to different forms of government: which are proper to which, or how they ought to be established, will be evident when we determine the nature of their powers. By powers I mean such powers as a magistrate exercises over the revenue or in defense of the country; for there are various kinds of power: the power of the general, for example, is not the same with that which regulates contracts in the market.

Go to Table of Contents


Translated by Benjamin Jowett. The copyright for the original of this document is held in the Public Domain. Font, formatting, spelling modernizations, typo/transcription corrections, and explanatory footnotes for this version of Aristotle’s “Politics” Copyright © 2011 Steve Farrell and Self-Educated American.


Self-Educated American recommends: Complete Works of Aristotle, Vol. 1