Offices In Oligarchies, Aristocracies, And Democracies

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Aristotle: “Politics”, Book Six, Part 8, 350 B.C.E.

Next in order follows the right distribution of offices, their number, their nature, their duties, of which indeed we have already spoken. No state can exist not having the necessary offices, and no state can be well administered not having the offices which tend to preserve harmony and good order. In small states, as we have already remarked, there must not be many of them, but in larger there must be a larger number, and we should carefully consider which offices may properly be united and which separated.

First among necessary offices is that which has the care of the market; a magistrate should be appointed to inspect contracts and to maintain order. For in every state there must inevitably be buyers and sellers who will supply one another’s wants; this is the readiest way to make a state self-sufficing and so fulfill the purpose for which men come together into one state. A second office of a similar kind undertakes the supervision and embellishment of public and private buildings, the maintaining and repairing of houses and roads, the prevention of disputes about boundaries, and other concerns of a like nature. This is commonly called the office of City Warden, and has various departments, which, in more populous towns, are shared among different persons, one, for example, taking charge of the walls, another of the fountains, a third of harbors. There is another equally necessary office, and of a similar kind, having to do with the same matters without the walls and in the country- the magistrates who hold this office are called Wardens of the country, or Inspectors of the woods. Besides these three there is a fourth office of receivers of taxes, who have under their charge the revenue which is distributed among the various departments; these are called Receivers or Treasurers. Another officer registers all private contracts, and decisions of the courts, all public indictments, and also all preliminary proceedings. This office again is sometimes subdivided, in which case one officer is appointed over all the rest. These officers are called Recorders or Sacred Recorders, Presidents, and the like.

Next to these comes an office of which the duties are the most necessary and also the most difficult, viz., that to which is committed the execution of punishments, or the exaction of fines from those who are posted up according to the registers; and also the custody of prisoners. The difficulty of this office arises out of the odium which is attached to it; no one will undertake it unless great profits are to be made, and any one who does is loath to execute the law. Still the office is necessary; for judicial decisions are useless if they take no effect; and if society cannot exist without them, neither can it exist without the execution of them. It is an office which, being so unpopular, should not be entrusted to one person, but divided among several taken from different courts. In like manner an effort should be made to distribute among different persons the writing up of those who are on the register of public debtors. Some sentences should be executed by the magistrates also, and in particular penalties due to the outgoing magistrates should be exacted by the incoming ones; and as regards those due to magistrates already in office, when one court has given judgement, another should exact the penalty; for example, the wardens of the city should exact the fines imposed by the wardens of the agora, and others again should exact the fines imposed by them. For penalties are more likely to be exacted when less odium attaches to the exaction of them; but a double odium is incurred when the judges who have passed also execute the sentence, and if they are always the executioners, they will be the enemies of all.

In many places, while one magistracy executes the sentence, another has the custody of the prisoners, as, for example, ‘the Eleven’ at Athens. It is well to separate off the jailorship also, and try by some device to render the office less unpopular. For it is quite as necessary as that of the executioners; but good men do all they can to avoid it, and worthless persons cannot safely be trusted with it; for they themselves require a guard, and are not fit to guard others. There ought not therefore to be a single or permanent officer set apart for this duty; but it should be entrusted to the young, wherever they are organized into a band or guard, and different magistrates acting in turn should take charge of it.

These are the indispensable officers, and should be ranked first; next in order follow others, equally necessary, but of higher rank, and requiring great experience and fidelity. Such are the officers to which are committed the guard of the city, and other military functions. Not only in time of war but of peace their duty will be to defend the walls and gates, and to muster and marshal the citizens. In some states there are many such offices; in others there are a few only, while small states are content with one; these officers are called generals or commanders. Again, if a state has cavalry or light-armed troops or archers or a naval force, it will sometimes happen that each of these departments has separate officers, who are called admirals, or generals of cavalry or of light-armed troops. And there are subordinate officers called naval captains, and captains of light-armed troops and of horse; having others under them: all these are included in the department of war. Thus much of military command.

But since many, not to say all, of these offices handle the public money, there must of necessity be another office which examines and audits them, and has no other functions. Such officers are called by various names- Scrutineers, Auditors, Accountants, Controllers. Besides all these offices there is another which is supreme over them, and to this is often entrusted both the introduction and the ratification of measures, or at all events it presides, in a democracy, over the assembly. For there must be a body which convenes the supreme authority in the state. In some places they are called ‘probuli,’ because they hold previous deliberations, but in a democracy more commonly ‘councillors.’ These are the chief political offices.

Another set of officers is concerned with the maintenance of religion priests and guardians see to the preservation and repair of the temples of the Gods and to other matters of religion. One office of this sort may be enough in small places, but in larger ones there are a great many besides the priesthood; for example, superintendents of public worship, guardians of shrines, treasurers of the sacred revenues. Nearly connected with these there are also the officers appointed for the performance of the public sacrifices, except any which the law assigns to the priests; such sacrifices derive their dignity from the public hearth of the city. They are sometimes called archons, sometimes kings, and sometimes prytanes.

These, then, are the necessary offices, which may be summed up as follows: offices concerned with matters of religion, with war, with the revenue and expenditure, with the market, with the city, with the harbors, with the country; also with the courts of law, with the records of contracts, with execution of sentences, with custody of prisoners, with audits and scrutinies and accounts of magistrates; lastly, there are those which preside over the public deliberations of the state. There are likewise magistracies characteristic of states which are peaceful and prosperous, and at the same time have a regard to good order: such as the offices of guardians of women, guardians of the law, guardians of children, and directors of gymnastics; also superintendents of gymnastic and Dionysiac contests, and of other similar spectacles. Some of these are clearly not democratic offices; for example, the guardianships of women and children- the poor, not having any slaves, must employ both their women and children as servants.

Once more: there are three offices according to whose directions the highest magistrates are chosen in certain states- guardians of the law, probuli, councillors- of these, the guardians of the law are an aristocratical, the probuli an oligarchical, the council a democratical institution. Enough of the different kinds of offices.

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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