"And if this is true it is evident that the sameness of the state consists chiefly in the sameness of the constitution, and it may be called or not called by the same name, whether the inhabitants are the same or entirely different. It is quite another question, whether a state ought or ought not to fulfill engagements when the form of government changes." (Politics book 3, chapter 3)

Does Aristotle discuss this question elsewhere?

3 Answers 3


St. Thomas Aquinas comments on that, saying (Sententia Politic. lib. 3 l. 2 n. 8; English transl. p. 189):

when the organization of the regime has been transformed, but the territory and the population remain the same, the political community is different even though materially the same. And one may then call the transformed political community by the same or a different name, whether the population be the same or different, but there will be equivocation if the same name is used. But whether or not, on account of the fact that a political community is different after a regime change, it is right (iustum, just) that agreements of a prior regime be honored belongs to another consideration that he will consider later.4

translator's note: "4. Aristotle does not return to this consideration."

So, it seems we don't know Aristotle's view on this.

  • Your translation misses a very crucial phrase: Utrum autem propter hoc quod non remanet eadem civitas facta transmutatione politiae, sit iustum, quod conventiones prioris politiae adimpleantur, VEL NON, pertinet ad aliam considerationem, quod quidem in sequentibus determinabitur. Oct 17, 2022 at 10:06
  • This is Regan's translation (p. 187): "But it is another question whether it is right to honor agreements when the political community is transformed into a different regime." (boldface mine). Oct 17, 2022 at 10:08
  • @TankutBeygu Here's Aquinas Institute's transl., which is better, too: "But on account of this—that it does not remain the same city when the regime has made a change-over—whether or not it is just that the conventions of a previous regime should be fulfilled belongs to another consideration—which, indeed, will be determined in what follows."
    – Geremia
    Oct 18, 2022 at 3:11

I think the answer lies in the question itself which is raised in terms of the city as a whole. In democracy the decisions are being made by Δημος, the people. On the contrary, a tyrant or the oligarchy is only a part of the whole city (1274b) which gives the right for their decisions to be doubted. So, it is for the democracy to claim cancellation in case that the public interest was not served. There are two historical facts that prove this interpretation. After the counterrevolution in Athens at 403 B.C. there was a legal regulation that cancelled all judicial decisions that the Tyrants made (Δημοσθένους, Κατά Τιμοκράτους: Νόμος ὁπόσα δ᾽ ἐπὶ τῶν τριάκοντα ἐπράχθη ἢ δίκη ἐδικάσθη, ἢ ἰδίᾳ ἢ δημοσίᾳ, ἄκυρα εἶναι) but kept all decisions made under the democratic state valid (Τας δίκας και τας διαίτας, όσαι εγένοντο επι τοις νόμοις εν δημοκρατουμένη τη πόλει, κυρίας είναι). The repayment of the debt towards the Spartans was a political decision, therefore not binding. The second example comes from Thucydides. When the people of Plataies blame the Thebes for Μηδισμό (taking the part of Persians), they respond that it wasn't the city that took the decision, but the king. So, his deal doesn't represent the will of the whole city ([3.62.3] καίτοι σκέψασθε ἐν οἵῳ εἴδει ἑκάτεροι ἡμῶν τοῦτο ἔπραξαν. ἡμῖν μὲν γὰρ ἡ πόλις τότε ἐτύγχανεν οὔτε κατ᾽ ὀλιγαρχίαν ἰσόνομον πολιτεύουσα οὔτε κατὰ δημοκρατίαν· ὅπερ δέ ἐστι νόμοις μὲν καὶ τῷ σωφρονεστάτῳ ἐναντιώτατον, ἐγγυτάτω δὲ τυράννου, δυναστεία ὀλίγων ἀνδρῶν εἶχε τὰ πράγματα. )

  • Please, excuse any mistakes in English. Nov 3, 2022 at 23:58

The original text of the excerpt (from 1276b) is

εἰ δὴ τοῦτον ἔχει τὸν τρόπον, φανερὸν ὅτι μάλιστα λεκτέον τὴν αὐτὴν πόλιν εἰς τὴν πολιτείαν βλέποντας: ὄνομα δὲ καλεῖν ἕτερον ἢ ταὐτὸν ἔξεστι καὶ τῶν αὐτῶν κατοικούντων αὐτὴν καὶ πάμπαν ἑτέρων ἀνθρώπων. εἰ δὲ δίκαιον διαλύειν ἢ μὴ διαλύειν, ὅταν εἰς ἑτέραν μεταβάλῃ πολιτείαν ἡ πόλις, λόγος ἕτερος.

The translation I would favour which is relatively literal is the one given by Harris Rackham, published in Loeb Classical Library (beware the citation error in the linked Perseus' web source):

Therefore if this is the case, it is clear that we must speak of a state as being the same state chiefly with regard to its constitution; and it is possible for it to be called by the same or by a different designation both when its inhabitants are the same and when they are entirely different persons. But whether a state is or is not bound in justice to discharge its engagements when it has changed to a different constitution, is another subject.

The corresponding sentences are boldfaced as the one in the question.

So far as I am aware, Aristotle does not take up the issue separately by itself. I presume the reason is that it is a matter that could be properly treated on a case-by-case basis rather than by an overall judgement. Here, πολιτεία (politeia; "the form of government" and "constitution" in the given translations, but also points to "engagements" in both translations; there is no separate word for "engagements" in the original text) stands out as the key word in the focal sentence. This is a highly theory-laden term of Aristotle as well as Plato before him. In the present context, its implication as "engagements" might be taken to denote the contracts between the city as a political body and its citizens considered both individually and collectively (i.e., how the city and the citizen stand with respect to each other). That is to say, social and political contracts change along with the constitution. As the history, especially of the 20th century during which many states and political systems collapsed and new ones were established, attests, the preservation of reciprocal rights and liabilities between the political bodies and the people subject to them through the changes became causes of harsh disputes and hardships, some of which have not been settled as yet.

Hence, Aristotle seems to suggest that each case should be decided by itself according to the doctrines he propounds in his treatises on politics and ethics (also we should not forget that his views on these topics exhibit admirable coherence with his fundamental philosophical tenets). I think Peter Simpson's following view (A Philosophical Commentary on the Politics of Aristotle, the University of North Carolina Press, 1998, p. 139) is complementary and supportive of the interpretation I offer:

1276b13 From this result it now follows, of course, that when the tyrant or the oligarchy acts, so does the city. But this conclusion does not settle what lay beneath the democratic argument quoted at the beginning. For that argument was really about whether a democracy was bound by the contracts of a previous regime and that, as Aristotle now expressly notes, is a different question. How he would answer it he does not say, but one can conjecture that it would depend on the circumstances, that is, on whether keeping this or that agreement would really serve the common good (which is what is meant by political justice, 3.12.1282b16-18). At all events, the first dispute from chapter 1, about the identity of the city, has now been resolved and in such a way as to confirm the definition of city in terms of the citizens or the regime.

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