It’s now evident that the middle class is disappearing, and at an alarming rate, as can be seen in the video below.

But why does a disappearing middle class matter? “Why should I care about this thing called ‘inequality’?” you might ask.

The reason why you should care was clearly laid out by a Greek philosopher, Aristotle, 2,400 years ago.

Aristotle pointed out that if the middle class disappears, then the poor will become the majority. The poor tend to be less educated than the rich, and they tend to struggle just to make ends meet. If the poor are the majority, then in a democracy they will vote to take away the money from the rich!

So, what are the rich to do?

Well, do away with democracy of course! Democracy, at that point, becomes too much of a threat to the elite, and the elite start taking steps to limit the power of government. (Moves to limit voting by the poor, anyone?)

Therefore, as the middle class disappears, democracy disappears with it.

On the other hand, with a MAJORITY middle class, democracy works, and it works well. Why? Because the middle class tends to be educated and has just enough prosperity that members of that class can see themselves becoming rich some day, so they don’t punish the rich, and they have compassion for the poor, being that many of them came from poverty. The middle class stands between the two extremes, the poor and the rich, and you end up with a well functioning democracy.

Here Aristotle describes just that in his book Politics:

The best constitution is one controlled by a numerous middle class which stands between the rich and the poor. For those who possess the goods of fortune in moderation find it “easiest to obey the rule of reason” (Politics IV.11.1295b4–6). They are accordingly less apt than the rich or poor to act unjustly toward their fellow citizens.

Raphael’s Aristotle from “The School of Athens,” fresco, 1510–1511, Apostolic Palace, Vatican

A constitution based on the middle class is the mean between the extremes of oligarchy (rule by the rich) and democracy (rule by the poor). “That the middle [constitution] is best is evident, for it is the freest from faction: where the middle class is numerous, there least occur factions and divisions among citizens” (IV.11.1296a7–9). The middle constitution is therefore both more stable and more just than oligarchy and democracy.

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The middle class is less likely to act unjustly towards the rich or the poor, and by being large, there is less chance for small groups taking over.

“The best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes . . . ; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.”


A community with a large middle class is well administered.


“The middle most easily obeys reason.” Those who are “excessively beautiful or strong or well-born or wealthy” find it hard to follow reason, because they tend to be “insolent and rather wicked in great things.” By contrast, those who are poor and “extremely wretched and weak, and have an exceeding lack of honor” tend to become “villains and too much involved in petty wickedness.” The middle class is, however, too humble to breed insolence and too well-off to breed villainy. Since most injustices arise from insolence and villainy, a regime with a strong middle class will be more likely to be just.

Second, Aristotle argues that the middle class is best suited to ruling and being ruled in turn. Those who enjoy, “an excess of good fortune (strength, wealth, friends, and other things of the sort)” love to rule and dislike being ruled.

Both of these attitudes are harmful to the city, yet they naturally arise among the wealthy. From an early age, the wealthy are instilled with a “love of ruling and desire to rule, both of which are harmful to cities” (1295b12), and, “because of the luxury they live in, being ruled is not something they get used to, even at school” (1295b13–17). By contrast, poverty breeds vice, servility, and small-mindedness. Thus the poor are easy to push around, and if they do gain power they are incapable of exercising it virtuously.

Therefore, without a middle class, “a city of slaves and masters arises, not a city of the free, and the first are full of envy while the second are full of contempt.”

Such a city must be “at the furthest remove from friendship and political community” (1295b21–24).

The presence of a strong middle class, however, binds the city into a whole, limiting the tendency of the rich to tyranny and the poor to slavishness, creating a “city of the free.”

Third, Aristotle argues that middle class citizens enjoy the safest and most stable lives, imbuing the regime as a whole with these characteristics.

Those in the middle are, among all the citizens, the most likely to survive in times of upheaval, when the poor starve and the rich become targets. They are sufficiently content with their lot not to envy the possessions of the rich. Yet they are not so wealthy that the poor envy them. They neither plot against the rich nor are plotted against by the poor.

Fourth, a large middle class stabilizes a regime, particularly if the middle is “stronger than both extremes or, otherwise, than either one of them. For the middle will tip the balance when added to either side and prevent the emergence of an excess at the opposite extremes” (1295b36–40).

Without a large and powerful middle class, “either ultimate rule of the populace arises or unmixed oligarchy does, or, because of excess on both sides, tyranny” (1296a3; cf. 6.12, 1297a6ff).

Fifth is the related point that regimes with large middle classes are relatively free of faction and therefore more concerned with the common good. This is because a large middle class makes it harder to separate everyone out into two groups (1296a7–10).

Finally, Aristotle claims that one sign of the superiority of middle class regimes is that the best legislators come from the middle class. As examples, he cites Solon, Lycurgus, and Charondas (1296a18–21).

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Aristotles argues 6 key points regarding the middle class:

  1. The middle class obeys reason
  2. The middle class is best suited to rule and be ruled
  3. The middle class enjoys the safest and most stable lives
  4. A large middle class keeps a regime stable and in check
  5. A large middle class makes it harder to separate the people into competing factions
  6. The best legislators come from the middle class.

So, the next time you see an article talking about the disappearance of the middle class, you’ll understand exactly why this is not a good thing, especially if you live in a democratic society and would like it to remain democratic.

10 thoughts on “Why Inequality Matters – Aristotle and the Middle Class

  1. I wonder if at least a portion of today’s poor are an evolved poor. There are so many educated poor, now, who have access to technology and information and know how to leverage the current situation. So while they’re considered poor, they’re quality of life and thought are better off. Just a thought.

    1. In a way, what you are saying is that the “middle class” has expanded to include even poorer people than before, which is almost making an excuse to allow for even more inequality. I would say, yes, the poorer ARE more educated, but they are still POOR as hell, so the scenario that Aristotle warns about still holds as the poor are just going to get more and more pissed off, there will be a breaking point at some point.

      The fact that the poor might be a bit more educated, doesn’t mean they still can’t be manipulated and end up voting against their own interests which is happening quite a bit these days, but again, if things continue the way they are, the pitchforks will be coming out:

      1. Oh, yeah, I agree 100%. There’s no excuse and it’s dangerous. I’m just thinking that a certain segment of the new poor will have different versions of pitchforks. Even more pointy, but with a new medium. There’s also a population of poor that won’t be too bothered, because they’ll have cable and internet and Angry Birds.

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