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Aristotle and Democracy

  • Andrew Lintott (a1)


There are two main types of question which arise from Aristotle's treatment of democracy, as from all other major topics which we find in that part of the Politics which is related to empirical data about political behaviour (Books 2–6 in O.C.T.). One type is primarily philosophical: ‘Is Aristotle's analysis logically coherent, is it consistent with his data, is it convincing?’ The other is more historical, though it has philosophical importance too: ‘From where does he derive his data, from where his views (or prejudices)? Has he done justice to the historical events that he adduces and to the opinions of men that he cites as evidence for political and ethical norms?’ Although in this paper I have a special interest in questions of the second type regarding the nature of the data, they cannot be tackled satisfactorily without considering the nature and validity of the analysis of democracy.

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1 General bibliography: Newman's, W. L. commentary (4 vols. Oxford, 18871902) is still indispensable for its introductions, comments on points of detail (including historical allusions) and cross-references. The revised Oxford translation (Barnes, J., ed., The Complete Works of Aristotle, The Revised Translation, ii, Princeton, 1984) has been re-edited with a helpful introduction by Everson, S. (Aristotle: the Politics, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, 1988). A Companion to Aristotle's Politics (ed. Keyt, D. and Miller, F. D., Jr., Oxford, 1991) is a collection of essays which provides a valuable commentary on many themes touched on here, see especially chs. 11, 13 and 14. Other modern accounts of Aristotle's treatment of democracy may be found in Mulgan, R. G., Aristotle's Political Theory (Oxford, 1977, 1987 2), chs. 4 and 6, and Morrall, J. B., Aristotle (London, 1977), ch. 6. Note also Braun, E., ‘Die Extreme Demokratie bei Polybios und bei Aristoteles’, JOeAI 54 (1983) Beiblatt, 140; Farrar, C., The Origins of Democratic Thinking (Cambridge, 1988), pp. 266ff. on Aristotle's hostility to democracy; Irwin, T., ‘Moral Science and Political Theory in Aristotle’, Crux (ed. Cartledge, P. A. and Harvey, F.D., History of Political Thought, vi.1/2, Exeter, 1985), pp. 150–68, on the integration of Aristotle's ethical beliefs within his political analysis and especially (pp. 163ff.) on his inaccurate account of the characteristic vices of democracy.

A version of this paper was originally delivered in a seminar series at Oxford on ‘Philosophy and History: Plato and Aristotle’. I am grateful to those who commented on it and to other contributors to the series.

2 Thuc. 3.2–5; 10–14. Cf. Lintott, A., Violence and Civil Strife in the Classical City (London, 1982), pp. 105–6, 241.

3 For a discussion of various arguments relevant to this question see Rhodes, P. J., A Commentary on the Aristotelian Athenaion Politeia (Oxford, 1981), Introduction, esp. pp. 1015, 58ff. Note also what seems to be a misunderstanding of Pol. 5.1303a in Ath. Pol. 26.1 and the rather clumsy interpretation of the doctrine in Pol. 3.1274a7ff. and 5.1304a20ff. to be found in Ath. Pol. 23.1 and 25.1.

4 Lintott [n. 2], chs. iii–viii, esp. pp. 90ff., 242ff. A more theoretical treatment is de Ste. Croix, G. E. M., The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World (London and Ithaca, 1981), with particular reference to Aristotle at pp. 69–80 and to the classical Greek city at pp. 278–300.

5 For the fundamental importance of koinōnia in Aristotle's politico-ethical theory, which provides a different basis for rights than the state-of-nature ethical ‘atomism’ of Locke and his followers, see Everson, S., ‘Aristotle on the Foundation of the State’, Political Studies 36 (1988), 89101. Of course the idea that a community is simply some kind of compact or alliance was already current in Greece, as Aristotle points out at 1280b10ff., cf. Keyt in Keyt and Miller [n. 1], pp. 252–3. For the concept of ‘atomism’ see Taylor, C., Philosophy and the Human Sciences. Philosophy Papers 2 (Cambridge, 1985), ch. vii.

6 Everson [n. 5], p. 90 n. 2.

7 Politeiai based on hoplites had been proposed at Athens during the oligarchic revolutions of 411 and 404 (see e.g. Lintott [n. 2]. pp. 153f., 164f.) and apparently even after the restoration of democracy in 403 (Lysias 34). On the general argument in this passage see also von Leyden, W., Aristotle on Equality and Justice (Basingstoke, 1985), p. 1725, stressing the qualitative differentiation between rich and poor and the arguments for democracy rather than rule by experts.

8 I differ from the Oxford translation here and hence, in my interpretation, from Mulgan (in Keyt and Miller [n. 1], pp. 307–22 at 318f.), at least in part. Mulgan rightly compares 6.1318a3ff., where Aristotle refers to what seems to him to be the most democratic democracy, in which the poor have no more share of government than the rich, but then argues that this type of democracy is less moderate than the second type where magistrates are required to have a small property-qualification. I do not see how this follows, since a small property-qualification (such as the opening of the archonship at Athens to all but the thētes in Pericles' time of ascendancy) would not have entrenched the share in government of the rich. On isonomia see Hdt. 3.80.6, 142.3; 5.37.2; cf. Thuc. 3.82.8; 4.78.2–3; LGS 447, 450 (Athen. Deip. 15.695a–c); Ostwald, M., Nomos and the Beginnings of Athenian Democracy (Oxford, 1969), pp. 149–58; Vlastos, G., ‘Isonomia Politikē’ in ISONOMIA : Studien zur Gleichheitsvorstellung in griechischen Denken, ed. Mau, J. and Schmidt, E. G. (Berlin, 1964), pp. 135.

9 Pol. 3.1274a7ff.; 5.1304a20ff.; Ath. Pol. 23.1; 25.1. Although I accept Vlastos' [n. 8] powerful argument that isonomia denotes an egalitarian ideal (‘a banner rather than a label’) only properly realised by democracy, I believe it possible that Aristotle was influenced here by the tendentious use of the term for regimes which were not fully democratic but aspired to equality on their own terms (cf. Isoc. Pan. 178; Areop. 60–1; Thuc. 3.62.3–4). See also Hansen, M. H., The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford, 1991), pp. 6571 for an account of Aristotle's typology of democracy and a critique of the view that isonomia was the original official term for democracy.

10 Ath. Pol. 29.3.

11 He only refers to the tribal refom (6.1319b21ff.) and the enfranchisement of metics (3.1275b35ff.).

12 The Oxford translation renders anupeuthunoi ‘under no disqualification’. Newman (vol. iv ad locc) compared 1292a2 with 1292b35, from which it appears that we must supply in the first passage ‘kata to genos’ (‘in respect of their birth’). The term presumably refers to people not actually deprived of citizen rights but to whom objection might be made (the sort of people discussed in Ath. Pol. 13.5 & 21.2). Hence Aristotle is assuming that a stricter birth-qualification might be applied to officers of the city than to members of the assembly.

13 Newman appropriately compared the speech addressed to the character Dêmos in Ar. Knights 1111ff.

14 Nomothesia is likewise not mentioned in Ath. Pol., unless it was in the lost section at the end after the discussion of voting in the law-courts. Instead, the author (41.2) stresses the retention of sovereignty by the dēmos, whether it was operating through the assembly or lawcourts. Basic sources for the nomothesia procedure are Dem. 24.20–3, 38; Aesch. 3.38–40, cf. Hansen, M. H., The Sovereignty of the People's Court in Athens in the Fourth Century B.C. (Odense, 1974); Id. The Athenian Assembly in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford, 1987), pp. 98, 174.

15 Xen. Hell. 1.7.9ff.; Plato, Apol. 32a–b.

16 Agyrrhios reintroduced assembly-pay at 1 obol a day, Heracleides of Clazomenai raised it to 2 obols and Agyrrhios raised it again to 3 (Ath. Pol. 41.3). All this occurred between 403 and the production of Ar. Ecc. (393–390 B.C.), cf. lines 289–311, 392. Later, before Ath. Pol. was written, the rate was raised to 9 obols at the main assembly in each prytany and 6 obols at other assemblies (62.2).

17 The opposite – officers chosen by lot from those qualified by wealth – is Ath. Pol.'s version (8.1) of the Solonian constitution, but Pol. 3.1273b40 and 6.1319a29 insist that officers were elected.

18 The notion of acting as one pleases is something of a caricature and can hardly be predicated of behaviour in any Greek city, however democratic. Plato regards it as a characteristic of the democratic man in Rep. 8.557b, cf. 560e, 9.572e. Isocrates uses similar phrases (Areop. 20; Pan. 131) to denounce current democracy by comparison with the good old days of Cleisthenes. Cf. Newman, iv. 496. Nevertheless there is a democratic principle here which works in an apparently contrary sense to that of ruling and being ruled in turn. See Hdt. 3.83.2, where, after the debate staged between the Persian conspirators, the protagonist of democracy Otanes says ‘I want neither to rule nor be ruled’, also the allusion to personal freedom in the Funeral Speech, discussed below. For the importance of personal or private liberty within the democratic concept of eleulheria see the excellent discussion by Hansen [n. 91], pp. 73–81, emphasising the similarities, rather than the differences, to modern views of individual rights.

19 Thuc. 2.37 (organisation for the benefit of the majority is what Aristotle calls to dikaion to dēmotikon – 1317b2). Ruling in turn and equality before the laws are also claimed as democratic principles in a text contemporary with the Funeral Speech (Eur. Supp. 404–8, 429–34).

20 Although Aristotle does not overtly endorse the approval of Solon's measures ascribed to some (enioi) in 3.1273b35, it is transparent through the following account of Athenian democracy and the reader's impression there is confirmed by the present passage. It is worth noting that the election of magistrates is central to Aristotle's appreciation of the Solonian constitution. If we believe that the version in Ath. Pol. 8.1, according to which magistracies were assigned by lot to members of a preselected group, represents Aristotle's later view, this marks not merely a change of view about a historical problem but the abandonment of an article of faith. On reconstructions of Solonian democracy as charters for current democratic ideology see now Hansen, M. H., ‘Solonian Democracy in Fourth-Century Athens’, in Aspects of Athenian Democracy, ed. Rufus, J. Fears (C & M. Diss. xi, 1989), 7199, emphasising the difference between the maximum interpretation, visible in Ath. Pol. and orators like Demosthenes, and the minimum view of Solon as a moderate democrat shared by Isocrates (esp. 7. Areop. 22–7, 36–57) and Aristotle.

21 On the difference between the Aristotelian concept of the mixed constitution and the later (Polybian, Ciceronian and early modern) ‘checks-and-balances’ theory see Nippel, W., Mischverfassungstheorie und Verfassungsrealität in Antike und früher Neuzeit (Stuttgart, 1980), esp. pp. 57ff., 142ff.

22 On the importance of the wealthy upper class in Syracusan democracy at the time of Athenagoras' speech see Lintott [n. 2], pp. 189ff. Aristotle believed that victory over Athens changed Syracusan society in the same way that victory over Persia changed Athenian (Pol. 5.1304a27ff.).

23 The elevation of the class of herdsmen is a remarkable thing in an ancient Greek writer. They figure little in our ancient sources and seem to be regarded as on the margin of civilisation, e.g. in Dio Chrys. Or. 7, cf. Robert, L., ‘Bergers grecs’, Hellenica 7 (1949), 152–60.

24 In Ath. Pol. 25 the demagogues are Ephialtes and Themistocles, while in 26.1 the epieikesleroi have no leader but are championed by Cimon.

25 Evidently, from what Aristotle has said, Solon is a prime candidate for fulfilling this description, since he was a moderate who produced a constitution which was a skilful mixture (above, p. 125). Newman preferred Theramenes (i.370; iv.220). The latter's claims are based on the ‘constitution of 5,000’, which Thucydides (8.97.2) called ‘a moderate blend (metria xunkrasis) in the power of both the many and the few’ – an opinion which Aristotle may well have shared and interpreted as the promotion of the mesoi. However, we have no explicit statement in Aristotle to this effect, and the emphasis in this passage on one man points away from Theramenes, since both in Thucydides and Ath. Pol. (33.2) the constitution is said to be the work of Aristocrates as well as Theramenes. Any ruler or lawgiver contemporary with Aristotle is excluded by the contrast between ‘formerly’ and the second half of the same sentence, ‘but even now those in the cities have developed the tendency…’.

26 Cf. Lintott [n. 2], pp. 239–40, 249. It is a nice question whether Herodotus had some specific instance in mind. He may have been influenced by an earlier Sicilian tyranny, that of Gelon, who overthrew a democratic movement when he seized Syracuse in 486 (Hdt. 7.155–6).

27 [Xen]. Ath. Pol. 1.l–A and passim.

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