Aristotle: A Treatise on Government


As I have now finished what was introductory to this subject, and considered at large the nature of other states, it now remains that I should first say what ought to be the establishment of a city which one should form according to one's wish; for no good state can exist without a moderate proportion of what is necessary. Many things therefore ought to be forethought of as desirable, but none of them such as are impossible: I mean relative to the number of citizens and the extent of the territory: for as other artificers, such as the weaver and the shipwright, ought to have such materials as are fit for their work, since so much the better they are, by so much [1326a] superior will the work itself necessarily be; so also ought the legislator and politician endeavour to procure proper materials for the business they have in hand. Now the first and principal instrument of the politician is the number of the people; he should therefore know how many, and what they naturally ought to be: in like manner the country, how large, and what it is. Most persons think that it is necessary for a city to be large to be happy: but, should this be true, they cannot tell what is a large one and what a small one; for according to the multitude of the inhabitants they estimate the greatness of it; but they ought rather to consider its strength than its numbers; for a state has a certain object in view, and from the power which it has in itself of accomplishing it, its greatness ought to be estimated; as a person might say, that Hippocrates was a greater physician, though not a greater man, than one that exceeded him in the size of his body: but if it was proper to determine the strength of the city from the number of the inhabitants, it should never be collected from the multitude in general who may happen to be in it; for in a city there must necessarily be many slaves, sojourners, and foreigners; but from those who are really part of the city and properly constitute its members; a multitude of these is indeed a proof of a large city, but in a state where a large number of mechanics inhabit, and but few soldiers, such a state cannot be great; for the greatness of the city, and the number of men in it, are not the same thing. This too is evident from fact, that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to govern properly a very numerous body of men; for of all the states which appear well governed we find not one where the rights of a citizen are open to an indiscriminate multitude. And this is also evident from the nature of the thing; for as law is a certain order, so good law is of course a certain good order: but too large a multitude are incapable of this, unless under the government of that DIVINE POWER which comprehends the universe. Not but that, as quantity and variety are usually essential to beauty, the perfection of a city consists in the largeness of it as far as that largeness is consistent with that order already mentioned: but still there is a determinate size to all cities, as well as everything else, whether animals, plants, or machines, for each of these, if they are neither too little nor too big, have their proper powers; but when they have not their due growth, or are badly constructed, as a ship a span long is not properly a ship, nor one of two furlongs length, but when it is of a fit size; for either from its smallness or from its largeness it may be quite useless: so is it with a city; one that is too small has not [1326b] in itself the power of self-defence, but this is essential to a city: one that is too large is capable of self-defence in what is necessary; but then it is a nation and not a city: for it will be very difficult to accommodate a form of government to it: for who would choose to be the general of such an unwieldy multitude, or who could be their herald but a stentor? The first thing therefore necessary is, that a city should consist of such numbers as will be sufficient to enable the inhabitants to live happily in their political community: and it follows, that the more the inhabitants exceed that necessary number the greater will the city be: but this must not be, as we have already said, without bounds; but what is its proper limit experience will easily show, and this experience is to be collected from the actions both of the governors and the governed. Now, as it belongs to the first to direct the inferior magistrates and to act as judges, it follows that they can neither determine causes with justice nor issue their orders with propriety without they know the characters of their fellow-citizens: so that whenever this happens not to be done in these two particulars, the state must of necessity be badly managed; for in both of them it is not right to determine too hastily and without proper knowledge, which must evidently be the case where the number of the citizens is too many: besides, it is more easy for strangers and sojourners to assume the rights of citizens, as they will easily escape detection in so great a multitude. It is evident, then, that the best boundary for a city is that wherein the numbers are the greatest possible, that they may be the better able to be sufficient in themselves, while at the same time they are not too large to be under the eye and government of the magistrates. And thus let us determine the extent of a city.

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