Dēmos · Classical Athenian Democracy · a Stoa Publication

[ link colors: Demos | External Source | Citation to Evidence| Word Tools ]

Demos Home




Instructions for reading passages.

Passages: Defining the City State.

Passages: Defining the Citizen.

Passages: Defining the System of Government.

→ Passages: Defining Democracy.

Passages: Types of Democracy.

Passages: Creating Democracy.

Passages: Preserving Democracy.

Passages: Destroying Democracy.

Selective Bibliography.

Index of Citations

General Index

Demos Home

Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle  

Thomas R. Martin, with Neel Smith & Jennifer F.Stuart, edition of July 26, 2003

page 8 of 13

· Passages: Defining Democracy ·

1294a: 11: Freedom is the defining principle of democracy.

1317a: 40-1317b13: The underlying principle of democracy is freedom, and it is customary to say that only in democracies do men have a share in freedom, for that is what every democracy makes its aim. There are two main aspects of freedom: 1) being ruled and ruling in turn, since everyone is equal according to number, not merit, and 2) to be able to live as one pleases.

1280a: 7-11: Justice as understood in democracy is equality, but this considers only part of what is just; the same is true of the notion of justice in oligarchy.

1330b: 19-20: A level location is suitable for a democratic city-state, an acropolis for an oligarchy or a monarchy.

1321a: 5-14: A multitude (plethos) has four divisions: farmers, craftsmen, merchants, and laborers. There are four [divisions of the population] useful for the military: those who own horses [cavalrymen], heavy-armed infantry [hoplites], light-armed infantry, and those who row warships in the navy. Light-armed infantry and rowers are wholly democratic [sections of the citizen body].

1278b: 8-12: The system of government of a city-state is the arrangement of its various institutions, especially those having authority. In a democracy, the people (demos) have authority.

1281a: 40-1281b6: That the multitude (plethos) should have authority rather than those who are best and few in number [is a defensible position]. Even though none of the many is individually a man of excellence, nevertheless they can be better when they are all together, just as a dinner to which many people contribute can be better than one furnished from a single source. With each of the many having a part of excellence and intelligence, when they join together they become like a single person.

1286a: 28-37: Any one man [of the many] may be inferior [to a man of excellence], but the city-state is made up of many men. Just as a meal done by many is better than a single and simple one, for this reason a mass (ochlos) can judge many things better than any one man. In addition, that which is many is less likely to be corrupted. So, although an individual’s judgment can be corrupted when he is overcome by anger or some other emotion, it is difficult for all to become angry and make erroneous judgments simultaneously. If all the men are good men and good citizens, they are less corruptible than one man. But the multitude must be free men and do nothing contrary to law, except in cases where the law necessarily falls short.

1281b: 23-36: What authority should belong to the multitude (plethos) of free citizens, who are not rich and have not a single claim to excellence? They should not have a share in the highest offices because their injustice and imprudence would make this unsafe. States are unstable, however, that are filled with those who have no share of political power and are poor. Therefore, it is left for them to share in the deliberative and judicial functions of government [namely, the assembly and the courts]. For when they have all come together, their perception [of political issues] is sufficient, and when they are mixed with the “better” citizens, they benefit city-states.

1282a: 25-32: In some systems of government, authority is given to the people (demos) over great matters, such as overseeing the audits of the conduct and accounts of magistrates and choosing them, for this power is given to the assembly. Thus, citizens of whatever age and required to meet only a low financial requirement can participate in the assembly and deliberate [on political issues] and serve in the courts, while those meeting a high financial requirement serve as treasurers and generals [the chief civic magistrates] and in the highest magistracies.

1279b: 18-19: Democracy is when those who do not own much property, but are poor, have authority in the system of government.

1279b: 20-1280a6: The definitions of democracy and oligarchy according to whether the many or the few have authority in the system of government appear problematic if one supposes that it might happen that the majority in a state were wealthy or that the poor would be few in number but still have authority. In fact, it is only a contingent factor whether the few or the many have authority in a state. The real difference between democracy and oligarchy is between poverty and wealth. Wherever the rulers, whether they be a minority or a majority, owe their power to wealth, that is an oligarchy. Wherever the poor rule, that is a democracy. Usually, where the rulers hold power by wealth, they are few, but where the poor rule, they are many, because few men are rich but all are free [if they are citizens in a city-state], and wealth and freedom are the grounds on which the two groups lay claim to government.

1290a: 30-1290b2: Democracy is not necessarily only wherever the multitude has authority. Oligarchy is not necessarily wherever a minority has power over the system of government. If the majority of a city-state were wealthy and had authority, nobody would call it a democracy, just as if a small group of poor men had control over a larger rich population, nobody would call it an oligarchy. Rather, democracy is when every free citizen has authority and oligarchy is when the rich have it.

1290b: 17-20: Democracy is when there is a majority of free, poor men who have authority to rule, while oligarchy is when it is in the hands of the wealthy and well-born, who are a minority.

1328b: 32-33: In democracies, everyone has a share in everything.

1297b: 37-1298a33: There are three parts to all systems of government for which a good law maker must try to find the best arrangement: deliberating about matters common to all, magistracies, and the judicial system. It is democracy when all the citizens can deliberate about everything, for the people seek this kind of equality. There are different ways of doing this. One way is by taking turns rather than all together. Another is to have all citizens meet together but only for the election of magistrates, law making, declarations of war and peace, and audits of magistrates, but to have all other matters decided by magistrates chosen from the entire citizen body either by election or by lot. Another is just like this, except the magistrates are chosen to the extent possible by election from those who are knowledgeable. A fourth way is when all citizens meet to deliberate on all matters, while the magistrates render only preliminary decisions, not final ones. The so-called final type of democracy [on which see under “Types of Democracy”], the type of democracy that is analogous to dynastic oligarchy and tyrannical monarchy and exists now [in Aristotle’s time], is arranged in this fourth way.

1317b: 17-41: The following arrangements are usually considered consistent with democracy:

  1. Election to all offices from among all the citizens.
  2. Rule of all over each and of each over all in turn filling magistrates by lot, or at least those not requiring knowledge and technical skill not having a financial requirement for holding magistracies, or at least the smallest possible requirement.
  3. The same person not repeating the same magistracy, or only rarely, except for military offices.
  4. Having the terms of magistracies be short, wherever possible.
  5. Choosing jurors from all citizens to adjudicate all matters, or most matters, especially the most important ones.
  6. The assembly having authority over all matters or the most important matters, while magistrates have authority over none, or as few as possible.
  7. Providing pay for all service in government, or for all functions that exercise authority.
  8. Making no distinctions according to a citizen’s birth, poverty, or occupation no public offices held for life.

1294b: 3-4: Democracy allows men to participate in the assembly with either no property qualification or a small one.

1297a: 35-38: To promote democracy, one can use these legislative devices: providing payment for the poor for attending the assembly and for jury service and not levying fines on the rich for not participating.

1301a: 11-12: The democratic way to arrange a judicial system is to have all juries drawn from all the citizens and hear all cases.

1294a: 39-40: In a democracy the poor receive pay for serving on juries and the rich are not penalized for failing to serve.

1323a: 6-9: Having a council oversee the election to magistracies that carry authority is democratic.

1300a: 31-34: It is democratic for all citizens to select magistrates from all citizens by election or by lot or by both methods.

1299b: 24-27: In a democracy, magistracies are filled from the ranks of the free, while in an oligarchy from the rich and in an aristocracy from the educated.

1294b: 7-10: Democracy fills magistracies by lot and does not require men to possess a minimum amount of wealth to be eligible to serve.

1273b: 12-13: It is more democratic—indeed more “polity-like”—to have a larger number of people hold public office and not to have one person hold multiple magistracies simultaneously, if the city-state is not small.

1287a: 4-5: There can be an office of general (strategia) without limit of time in all systems of government, even in a democracy.

1300a: 6-7: It is not democratic, but aristocratic, to have a magistrate to oversee children, or one to oversee women, or any other one to exercise this sort of oversight. For it is not possible [as practical matter] to prevent the wives of poor men from going out of their homes [because they have to work outside the home to earn money to help support their families].

Plot on a Map

1294b: 19-39: Many try to talk about Sparta as a democracy because it has many democratic elements in the arrangement [of its system of government]. For example, the children of rich and poor are raised and educated in the same way. So, too, adults eat and dress the same way, whether rich or poor. As for their top two offices, one is elected by the people [that is, ordinary citizens], and the people can be elected to the other. Others call Sparta an oligarchy because it has oligarchic elements also.

Plot on a Map
Sparta (in text as “Spartan”).

1271a: 32-37: The Spartan common messes were intended to be a democratic institution, but they did not work out that way. Everyone is required to contribute [to the shared meals], but some of them are too poor to do so. The very poorest cannot easily share in the common messes, yet this is the ancestral defining principal of their system of government. Thus the very poor do not have a share in it.

Plot on a Map

1265b: 35-1266a2: Some see democratic elements in the system of government at Sparta. Some of these think the board of overseers (ephors) is democratic because it is drawn from all the citizens. Others, however, call the board tyrannical and think the system of government is run democratically through the common messes and the rest of the everyday way of life at Sparta.

Plot on a Map
Sparta (in text as “Spartan”).

1270b: 13-17: Since the Spartan board of overseers is too powerful, the kings must attempt to win their support. This has done additional injury to the system of government, which has changed from aristocracy to democracy.

1284a: 3-37: A man who is clearly superior in excellence to all the rest of the city-state would be like a god among men. Democratic states instituted ostracism to banish such men for a fixed amount of time to prevent them from taking over the city-state because they were preeminent in their wealth, their large number of supporters, or some other source of political strength.

[ back to top ]

page 8 of 13