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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

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Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle  

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

(Section 1 of 13)

· Summary ·

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Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).

Ancient Greek democracy has regularly attracted the attention of modern political scientists as part of the discussion of the theory and practice of democratic systems of government. By far the most important ancient text for this discussion is the Politics of Aristotle. Studying what Aristotle has to say about democracy in the Politics is challenging for several reasons. First of all, his remarks on the subject are spread widely throughout this extended work. The challenge is further increased by the discursive character of Aristotle’s arguments in the Politics, which for one thing mix discussions of theoretical principles for systems of government with observations about actual Greek states of Aristotle’s time (and before it). Finally, there is the strong possibility that the traditionally accepted order of the eight “Books” or chapters of the Politics is not the order in which Aristotle meant his arguments to be presented.

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(Section 2 of 13)

· Introduction ·

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).

The goal of this article is to provide one possible aid for those wishing to meet this challenge. It therefore offers a series of topical headings under which selected passages relevant to the study of democracy in the Politics are rearranged. That is, under each topic the passages are listed not in the order in which they occur in the Politics, but are instead arranged in an order that attempts to suggest connections in thought between Aristotle’s various remarks on democracy. The passages are paraphrased rather than translated word for word, although the paraphrases of the shorter excerpts attempt to stay as close to the Greek wording as is practical. Since the paraphrased passages are meant to serve as jumping-off points for consideration of the full text of the Politics, each passage has an active link to the full text of the Politics. A glossary of Greek terms and a very selective bibliography of recommended print readings are also included.

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).

Since the approach adopted for this site rearranges the order of material on democracy from the Politics, it necessarily removes each passage from its context in order to suggest connections in thought that might not be easy to grasp when the text is read serially from beginning to end. This displacement of the passages suggests an interpretation of the connections in Aristotle’s thought on democracy in the Politics. The potential danger of this method, of course, is that reading excerpted and paraphrased passages without considering their full context can be seriously misleading. It must be strongly emphasized, therefore, that reading the Politics thoroughly from beginning to end (and more than once!) is the only way to try to understand fully its complex and interwoven arguments. With this caution firmly in mind, users can consider the arrangement of excerpted passages as a guide to further study of Aristotle’s reflections on ancient Greek democracy.

In the environment provided by electronic publication, all readers can immediately confront our implied interpretation with the underlying evidence and offer suggestions for improvement by electronic response to the author and contributors. In this way the collaborative work that produced this article can continue as a scholarly conversation on a wide scale.

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(Section 3 of 13)

· Glossary ·

Every attempt has been made to be consistent in the translation of crucial Greek terms, such as polis, but the flexibility of meaning of some of them makes absolute consistency impossible. The following translations are used as consistently as possible:

“Polity” for politeia when Aristotle uses the word in its particular sense to indicate rule by the many in what he defines as the straight or correct system of government of this type. (By contrast, he refers to rule by the many in a diverging and thus “erroneous” system as “democracy.”) (See this word in selections from Aristotle, courtesy of the Perseus Digital Library; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

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United States.
United Kingdom.

“System of government” for politeia when Aristotle uses the word in its generic sense, which is conventionally translated into English as “constitution.” (This departure from convention is to avoid the potential ambiguity of the term “constitution,” which as a familiar term in the United States today is usually taken to mean a formal, written document prescribing the structure of government. The “constitutions” of ancient Greek city-states were often not written down, a tradition found today, for example, in the United Kingdom.) (See this word in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

“Diverging system of government” for parekbasis. The diverging systems are tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy, which are those systems that “diverge” (parekbaino) from the three “straight systems of government” (orthai politeiai), which are kingship, aristocracy, and polity. (See parekbasis in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see parekbasis in all Perseus texts. See occurences of orthos within five words of politeia in Perseus selections from Aristotle; in all Perseus texts.)

“Excellence” for arete, which is conventionally translated “virtue.” Excellence in the Greek sense can and often does pertain to ethical qualities and morality, but it can also pertain to, for example, physical strength or courage. (See this word in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

“Partnership” for koinonia, literally “a sharing or taking part in a thing with others.” (See this word in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

“Goal” for telos, literally “end, purpose.” (See this word in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

“Multitude” for plethos, which can also mean “majority” or, by extension, “democracy.” (See this word in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

“People” for demos, which can also, by extension, mean “democracy.” (See this word in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

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(Section 4 of 13)

· Instructions for reading passages ·

Important information on links

Read about the evidence
Aristotle (Aristot. Pol.).
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The links from each passage are to the full text of the Politics in both an on-line Greek text and an accompanying English translation maintained by the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University. Passages are cited, following the most precise standard form of reference to the Politics, as a four-digit number followed by the letter “a” or “b” (that is, 1253a, 1274b, and so on) to indicate a particular section of the work. The precise location of the cited passage within a section is indicated by the line numbers that follow the citation of the section. (This reference system is derived from the Greek edition of the Politics published by Immanuel Bekker in Berlin in 1831.)

Two crucial warnings

Each section (e.g., 1253a, 1274b, etc.) is presented as continuous text. The line numbers following the section designation are indicated in the on-line Greek text in multiples of five, while the corresponding line numbers in the accompanying English translation appear every twenty lines in brackets, but the line divisions as represented in your Web browser may not correspond exactly to this numeration.

Since, for technical reasons, the links must go to the first line of a section and therefore usually not to the first line of the cited reference itself, the particular lines referred to may appear rather far down from the beginning of the section. In some cases, the particular lines may be far enough from the beginning of the section that they will not be on the screen when the section is first displayed, and it will then be necessary to scroll until they appear. Please be sure to note the precise line number within the section to which you are linking before following that link so that you can locate that line by scrolling.

Introduction to the groups of excerpted passages

The first three groups of excerpted passages provide context for the remaining groups. The first of the three concerns elements of the definition of the ancient Greek city-state (polis) in the Politics because Aristotle’s discussion of democracy pertains to this type of political state. The next group concerns the definition of the citizen because it took citizens to constitute a system of government in the city-state, of which democracy was one. The third concerns the definition of different systems of government in the city-state, especially the notion that democracy is, in Aristotle’s view, a “diverging” system of government. The remaining groups of passages concern democracy itself. In the paraphrases of the passages, square brackets [ ] indicate editorial additions to the ancient text.

The text of the Politics is conventionally divided into eight “Books,” whose proper order is disputed. These book divisions do not appear in the continuous text to which the passages are linked. For those who wish to correlate the passages cited below to the book in which they appear, the following list indicates the division of sections in the books as traditionally numbered. Since the links go to the beginnings of sections, they will not go to the part of the section at which a particular book begins. For example, Book 4 begins at 1288b10, but the link goes to the beginning of 1288b, from which point it is necessary to scroll forward to reach line 10.

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(Section 5 of 13)

· Passages: Defining the City State ·

1253a: 2-3: Human beings are, by nature, creatures who live in a city-state (polis). [The same remark occurs at 1278b19.] 1274b: 33-34: It is a disputed question what exactly the city-state is.

1279a: 21: A city-state is a partnership of the free.

1255b: 16-20: Rule in a city-state is the rule of those who are free and equal. This is not the same as mastery, where one is a slave and the other is a ruler.

1276b: 1-2: A city-state is a partnership of citizens in a system of government.

1252a: 1-7: Every city-state is a kind of partnership, and every partnership is created for the sake of something good. Political partnership, which is called the city-state, aims at the most authoritative good of all.

1275b: 17-21: Given the definition of a citizen in 1275a: 22-23, a city-state is a multitude of such persons large enough for self-sufficiency of life.

1252b: 29-30: The city-state comes into being for the sake of living, but it exists for the sake of living “well” (to eu zen). [This phrase implies more than what is usually meant by “living well” in English, which is to say “being prosperous.” The Greek phrase implies above all a life lived in accordance with excellence (arete). Living a prosperous life is not necessarily in conflict with this notion but is certainly not the principal implication of living “well” in Greek. See the next passage.]

1280b: 29-1281a8: A city-state is clearly not just living together in a shared territory for mutual defense and the exchange of goods. It is rather a partnership among households, clans, and villages for living “well,” for the sake of a fully developed and self-sufficient life. Those who contribute most to a partnership of this sort have a greater part in the city than those who are equal or greater in freedom or family, but unequal in political excellence, or those who outdo them in wealth, but are outdone in excellence.

1278b: 21-25: The goal or purpose (telos) of the city-state certainly encompasses physical existence and survival, but it is also more than that, namely, living “finely” (to zen kalos).

1280b: 6-8: The city-state that is truly a city-state must be concerned with excellence (arete).

1323b: 30-34: The best city-state is happy and acts finely. It is impossible for those who do not do fine things to act finely. There is no fine action of man or city-state apart from excellence and thinking.

1253a: 37: Justice is a thing of the city-state.

1282b: 16-18: The political good is justice, and justice is the common advantage.

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(Section 6 of 13)

· Passages: Defining the Citizen ·

1275a: 22-23: A citizen defined in simple terms is someone who can participate in judging [that is, serve as a juror in the court system] and in governing [that is, serve in public office, which here means not just magistracies but also serving in the assembly and on the council in systems of government that have these institutions].

1275b: 5-7: The definition of citizen just given in 1275a: 22-23 applies especially to democracy and possibly, though not necessarily, to other systems of government because different definitions would apply in different systems.

1275a: 2-5: Who is entitled to be a citizen? No agreement exists; someone who would be a citizen in a democracy would often not be a citizen in an oligarchy.

1278a: 8-25: In the best city-state, craftsmen (banausoi) will not be allowed to be citizens, since they are not really able to live freely, because they are not free from “necessary tasks” [that is, they have to do physical work for a living] and therefore do not have the time to devote themselves to the activities in which excellence is manifested. This does not mean that they are poor; craftsmen in fact can be rich, but they still have to engage in making things with their own hands, [an activity seen as demeaning by citizens in the social elite].

1278a: 26-29: In many systems of government, citizens are legally drawn from the ranks of foreigners [that is, both of their parents do not have to be citizens]. In some democracies, citizens need only have a citizen mother, and even illegitimate children (nothoi) can be citizens in many places.

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1275b: 35-37: Cleisthenes of Athens made citizens of metics [resident foreigners], who had been foreigners or slaves, following the expulsion of the tyrants from Athens [near the end of the sixth century].

1283b: 42-1284a4: The citizen in common parlance is the person who has a share in ruling and being ruled; in the best system of government [namely, a polity, on which see under “Defining Systems of Government”] a citizen is both able and willing to rule and be ruled in accordance with a life lived with excellence as its aim.

1277a: 26-27: The excellence of a citizen consists of being able to rule and be ruled well.

1277b: 13-18: The good citizen must have ability and knowledge concerning both ruling free men and also being ruled. A good citizen must possess moderation and prudence (sophrosyne) and justice (dikaiosyne) with respect to ruling.

1276b: 28-29: The task of citizens is the preservation (soteria) of the partnership that is their system of government. [Also under “Preserving Democracy”]

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(Section 7 of 13)

· Passages: Defining the System of Government ·

1323a: 14-16: To seek out what is the best system of government, it is first necessary to define what is the most desirable life.

1323b: 1-4: Living happily, whether for human beings it comes from enjoyment or from excellence or from both, exists for those persons excessively adorned with character and purpose but moderate in the acquisition of external goods.

Read about the evidence
(Aristot. Pol.).
(Aristot. Pol.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Nic. Eth.).
Aristotle (Aristot. Nic. Eth.).

1295a: 25-1295b: Like the best life, the best system of government is conducted in accordance with excellence. If excellence is the mean, as argued in the Nicomachean Ethics [for example, at 1101a: 14-16], then a life and a system of government that is “in the middle” is best. A city-state has three elements in its population: the rich, the poor, and those in the middle. The political partnership that is constituted from those in the middle is the best.

1293a: 35-42: In addition to the four systems of government that [other] people usually bring up in discussing systems of government (namely, monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, and aristocracy), there is a fifth one called polity (politeia), which is also the term used to mean “system of government” in general or in a generic sense. This fifth system of government is sometimes overlooked in discussions of the types of systems of government since it does not come into existence very often.

1289a: 26-28: As was established previously in the first book of the Politics, there are three “straight” or “upright” [and therefore correct and good] systems of government (orthai politeiai): kingship, aristocracy, and polity.

1265b: 26-28: The system of government called polity is midway between democracy and oligarchy.

1293b: 33-37: Polity is, to put it simply, a mixture of oligarchy and democracy. The kinds of polities that tend towards democracy are customarily referred to by the name of polity, while those that tend towards oligarchy are called aristocracies.

1307a: 15-16: The systems of government inclining more toward oligarchy are called aristocracies, while those inclining more toward the multitude (plethos) [which can also mean “democracy”] are called polities.

1297b: 22-25: As city-states increased in size and grew stronger in the heavy-infantry [hoplite] section of the citizen body, more men gained a share in the system of government. For this reason what are now called polities were previously called democracies.

1279a: 37-39: When the multitude governs according to the common advantage, then this system of government is called by the term also used to designate systems of government in general, namely, polity.

1288a: 12-15: The multitude suitable for a polity is one capable of military service that has the natural ability to rule and be ruled in accordance with law that distributes offices to wealthier citizens on the basis of merit.

1307a: 5-8: Polities and aristocracies are undone by diverging from that which constitutes justice in the two different systems of government, [which is not necessarily the same thing in each system]. The starting point in a polity is when democracy and oligarchy have been not mixed appropriately [literally, “finely”].

1275b: 1-3: Diverging and erroneous systems of government are necessarily subsequent, not prior to correct [straight] systems.

1279b: 4-10: There are three systems of government diverging from the three “straight” systems: tyranny diverging from kingship, oligarchy diverging from aristocracy, and democracy diverging from polity. Each diverging system (parekbasis) is structured to operate to the advantage of the ruler(s); for example, democracy is rule to the advantage of the poor. None of the diverging systems aims at the profit of every type of citizen in common.

1289a: 28-1289b5: Of these three diverging systems of government, tyranny is the worst (which is to say the furthest from polity), oligarchy the next worst, and democracy the most moderate.

1279a: 17-21: While straight systems of government are concerned with the common advantage according to what is quite simply just, diverging forms of government are those that in error serve the interest of the ruler(s). Diverging forms of government tend to have an element of despotism, because a city-state is a partnership of the free.

1290a: 13-29: Some people claim that, just as there are two main kinds of wind or of musical harmonies, and the other winds and harmonies are regarded as divergences from these, there are also two sorts of systems of government, rule by the people and oligarchy. On this view, the, polity diverges from democracy and aristocracy diverges from oligarchy. But it is better to postulate instead that there are “straight” systems of government and systems of government diverging from them.

1259a: 39-1259b10: The rule that a husband has over his wife, a free person, is the same sort of rule that exists over free persons in a polity. Since the male is more fit to rule by nature, he will rule continuously in the household, unless he is somehow unnatural. In contrast, when citizens are equals and do not differ, then the roles of ruler and ruled will alternate.

1325b: 7-8: For those who are alike, the fine and the just is [to rule and be ruled] in turn, for this is equal and alike.

1282b: 10-13: Since laws align with the system of government, the laws of straight systems of government are necessarily just, but those of diverging systems are necessarily not just.

1309a: 36-39: Justice and the excellence associated with it are not the same in different systems of government.

1309b: 19-35: Diverging types of government fail to pay attention to the middle. Institutions suitable to a certain type of government can be the downfall of that type of government if they become too extreme. Just as a nose [on a statue] can still be appealing to look at if it diverges from the straightness that is beautiful but can become not even a nose if an artist pushes it too far in the direction of the extremes, so, too, a system of government such as democracy that diverges from the best system can still be adequate if it is not pushed to an extreme.

1287b: 39-41: There is no such thing as a person being naturally fitted for any of the diverging systems of governments, for they have come into being contrary to nature (physis).

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(Section 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].

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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(Section 9 of 13)

· Passages: Types of Democracy ·

1289a: 8-10: Multiple types of democracy happen to exist, despite some people saying there is only one type. [The same remark occurs at 1289a: 22-25, 1291b: 15-16, and 1316b: 36.]

1317a: 22-33: There are two reasons why there are several different types of democracy: their majorities or “peoples” are of different kinds (for example, farmers as opposed to craftsmen or laborers), and they can have different combinations of the institutions that make them democratic.

1289a: 22-23: The same laws cannot be advantageous for every type of democracy.

1291b: 30-1292a13: [This passage appears to list five types of democracy, but the next two passages list only four.]

  • The first type of democracy is particularly based on equality, where neither the rich nor the poor has pre-eminent authority, but both are similar [in their authority]. Still, since the majority rules and the “people” will be in the majority, this is a democracy.
  • Another type is when citizens have to meet a financial assessment to qualify for service in public offices, but the amount is low and any citizen possessing the required amount can have a share.
  • Another type is when anyone whose citizenship is not open to dispute [because they are descended from a family of citizens whose citizenship has never been questioned?] can have a share, and the law rules.
  • Another type is when absolutely everyone, so long as they are citizens [and even if they became citizens in a special way, such as being made citizens in political revolution, and did not inherit their citizenship], can have a share in public offices, and law rules.
  • Another type is the same in the other ways [as in type no. 4?] but the multitude rules, not law. This happens when decrees [passed by the multitude] have authority rather than the law having authority. Here demagogues arise, and the multitude becomes a monarch.

1292b: 22-1293a12: [There are only four types of democracy listed in this passage.]

  • One type of democracy is when farmers and those possessing a moderate amount of property have authority. They govern themselves in accordance with law because their work leaves them little leisure time. They therefore meet in the assembly only as absolutely necessary [to make decisions on matters not covered by the code of law]. A share [in the system of government] is open to anyone as soon as they meet the financial assessment set by law. They cannot be at leisure [for public service in governing] unless there is public revenue [to subsidize their participation].
  • A second type is when anyone whose citizenship is beyond question by his descent is entitled to have a share but only those with leisure [for public service in governing] actually have a share. The laws rule because there is no public revenue.
  • A third type is when all who are free are entitled to a share in the system of government, but they do not in fact take part for the reason previously stated. Therefore, law necessarily rules.
  • A fourth type is the last type to arise in cities. Since cities have become far larger than before and have public revenue from which to pay subsidies for public service, everyone is now able to participate. Even the poor have the leisure for public service thanks to the payments. Their private business and affairs are not an impediment for their public service, but such things are an impediment for the rich, who therefore frequently avoid service in the assembly or the courts. In this way the multitude of the poor wins authority over the system of government, not the laws.

1296b: 24-31: Where the quantity of the multitude of the poor is so large as to overbalance the quality of the rich, according to the formula just explained [in the text preceding this passage], there democracy springs up naturally. What type of democracy it is will depend on what type of population is preeminent. For example, if it is a multitude of farmers, then it will be the first type of democracy it is the first kind. If it is a multitude of craftsmen and wage-earners, then it will be the final type, and so on with the types in between.

1318b: 6-1319a3: There being four types of democracy, the best is the first in the arrangement previously mentioned [namely, in 1292b22-1293-1293a12, as listed above]. This type of democracy has a multitude that is mostly farmers or herders, whose work keeps them too busy to meet frequently in the assembly. They do not wish to serve in offices, where there is no great profit in it. Everyone will elect magistrates and conduct audits of them and serve in the courts, but those elected to office will meet financial assessments or, if there is no such requirement, will be capable people.

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Aphytis (in text as “Aphyteans”).

1319a: 4-19: This is the best democracy because of what sort of people (demos) it has. If one would like to institute a farming demos, one should look to the law of the Aphyteans, who divide their little amount of land into very small plots so that everyone, even the poor, has enough land to meet the financial requirement for sharing in citizenship.

1319a: 20-38: Next best to having a multitude consisting of farmers is to have a herding people. The herding class have strong bodies and dispositions fit for military service. The other sorts of multitudes from which democracies are constituted are far worse. For craftsmen, merchants, and laborers lead lives devoid of excellence, and they are always in the marketplace and in the city and thus able to attend assemblies. It is easier to create a good democracy in a place where the fields of the city-state are located at some distance from the city and the multitude must dwell out in the country [to work in the fields and are thus not easily able to come to the urban center to attend meetings]. Even where there is a crowd of merchants, assemblies should not be held without the multitude from the country.

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1319b: 1-32: The final type of democracy, in which everyone is in the partnership, is not easy for every city to maintain, nor is it easy for this type to endure because its laws and its habits are not well composed. Demagogues expand its citizen body by allowing in those of illegitimate birth or born to only one citizen parent. If the rabble grow too numerous, they create disorder and can provoke the notable members of the population to resistance against the democracy. This type of democracy is made stronger by introducing institutions to mix everyone up together, as Cleisthenes did at Athens. This type of democracy promotes disorderly living, with a lack of control over women, children, and slaves, and a toleration for everyone living as he pleases, for the many prefer living like this to living with prudence and moderation.

1298b: 13-19: The democracy today considered the most democratic—namely, the type in which the people (demos) has authority even over the laws—arranges things to serve its own advantage in the deliberative body: they pay the poor to attend.

1305a: 28-32: A change from ancestral democracy to the newest democracy can occur. If the people elect the magistrates and there is no minimum financial requirement, then those eager for office act as demagogues to accomplish this and give the people authority over the laws.

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1266b: 21-24: The system of government at Leucas became excessively democratic when offices were no longer filled according to the established minimum property requirement based on “old allotments” of land [but instead the requirement was lowered].

1312b: 4-6: The final type of democracy is a tyranny.

1313b: 32-41 The final form of democracy has characteristics of tyranny: women dominate in the household so that they can denounce their husbands, slaves lack discipline, and flatterers—demagogues—are held in honor. The people wish to be a monarch.

1295b: 39-1296a5: It is best for citizens in a city-state to possess a moderate amount of wealth because where some have a lot and some have none the result is the ultimate democracy or unmixed oligarchy. Tyranny can result from both these extremes. It is much less likely to spring from moderate systems of government.

1311a: 15-16: Taking after democracy, tyranny makes war on the notables in the citizen body.

1276a: 12-14: Some democracies, like tyrannies, rest on force and are not directed toward the common advantage.

1277b: 1-3: In some places in the old days, before the development of “ultimate” democracy, craftsmen were barred from office.

1312b: 35-38: Ultimate democracy, like unmixed and final oligarchy, is really a tyranny divided [among a multitude of persons].

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(Section 10 of 13)

· Passages: Creating Democracy ·

1286b: 11-22: When there came to be many men alike in their excellence, they ceased to put up with kingship and instead, seeking something shared, established a polity. As they became [morally] worse and began to make a profit from common affairs [or “resources”], oligarchies arose, for they made wealth something honorable. Then these oligarchies changed first into tyrannies, and from tyrannies into democracies. For by always bringing power to ever fewer people in search of base profit, they made the multitude stronger, which attacked [the ruler(s)], and democracies arose. Now that city-states have become even larger than before, it is not very easy for any system of government but a democracy to come into existence.

1301a: 28-31: [Rule by the] people developed because those who are equal in whatever way suppose that they are quite simply equal [in all ways]. Since they are all free in like manner, they think they are quite simply equal.

1292b: 11-14: It happens that a system of government may not be democratic in terms of its laws but is still governed democratically on account of the habit and upbringing of the citizens.

1296a: 22-36: When there is factional strife between rich and poor because there is not a strong “middle” [in the citizen body], the conflict leads to either democracy or oligarchy, depending on who wins. Once the fight is decided, the victors do not establish a shared or equal system of government; rather, they establish one to their own advantage.

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1305a: 37-1305b11: Mistreating the people can lead to the overthrow of oligarchy and the establishment of [the rule of] the people, as at Istros.

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1303a: 1-10: A system of government can be changed into a democracy when the size of the multitude of the poor increases, as occurred at Tarentum, Argos, and Athens.

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1273b: 35-1274a15: Some people say that Solon did away with an excessively unmixed oligarchy [at Athens] and ended the enslavement of the people (demos), thus founding the ancestral democracy, which had a mixture of oligarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements. In fact, what he did was to create [the rule of the] people by founding courts whose juries were drawn from the entire citizen body. Later leaders continued [to increase the power of the people], leading to the present [more democratic] democracy. It really was not Solon’s intention for this to happen. But because the people were the source of Athenian naval strength in the wars against Persia, they began to have high aspirations [for political power] and to choose unworthy demagogues as leaders when socially more respectable citizens opposed this development.

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1304a: 17-34: Changes towards democracy (or another type of government) can come about when a magistracy or some part of the city-state grows in power. This led to greater democracy at Athens after the war with Persia, when those who rowed in the fleet became the cause of the victory at Salamis and of the leadership [over its Greek allies] that Athens earned from its naval strength. So, too, at Syracuse, Chalcis, and Ambracia the people set up democracies after their participation in battle was the crucial element enabling their city-state to be victorious in war.

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(Section 11 of 13)

· Passages: Preserving Democracy ·

1276b: 28-29: The task of citizens is the preservation (soteria) of the partnership that is their system of government. [Also under “Defining the Citizen”]

1309b: 35-37: The lawmaker and the political man must know what kind of democratic institutions preserve and what kinds destroy democracy.

1308a: 11-16: The equality that supporters of democracy seek is just and advantageous for people who are alike. Where there are many people in government, legal rules of a democratic cast are advantageous, such as limiting term in office to six months so that everyone who is alike can have a share in filling public posts.

1321a: 1-2: Democracies are generally preserved by having a large citizen body.

1326b: 2-7: A city-state must be populous enough to be self-sufficient, but too large a state cannot be a city-state because it is not easy to have a system of government in it. It is too large to be effectively managed militarily, and no herald can shout loud enough [to conduct the assembly meetings of a large population].

1296a: 13-16: Democracies are more secure than oligarchies and more enduring since they have more “middle” people with a greater share in [political] prerogatives.

1309b: 37-1310a6: To endure, a democracy, like an oligarchy, needs both the rich and the poor. A democracy that destroys the well-off becomes unstable. Where the people have authority over the laws, demagogues tear the city in two by fighting with the rich. Instead, they should do the opposite and appear to speak on the behalf of the rich.

1309a: 1-9: It is democratic for all to be eligible to hold public office. The policy of not allowing office holders to profit from their office will mean that the poor will not desire to hold office, but rather they will prefer to tend to their own affairs. Thus, they will become more prosperous by working, while the notable and wealthy members of the citizen body will hold office because they have no need to earn money from public service. In this way the notables will not be governed by just anyone. Both groups will then have what they want [and therefore the state will be stable].

1299b: 32-34: A council (boule) with a large number of members is supportive of democracy because it does preliminary deliberation for the people so that they can have time for their occupations.

1309a: 27-31: In democracy, as in oligarchy, it is advantageous to give equality or precedence in all aspects of the government except the highest offices to that group which has the least share in the system of government. In a democracy, that group would be the rich.

1319b: 33-1320b17: To preserve a democracy, one should strive not for measures that will make it absolutely as democratic as possible but rather that will preserve it for the longest time. The following measures are recommended: any confiscations of property imposed as punishment in a legal judgment should become property of the gods, not of the public, to prevent corrupt court judgments meant to secure a distribution to the population from the confiscated property; large penalties should be imposed for frivolous prosecutions to prevent harassment of the rich; if there are no [additional] sources of public revenues besides taxes [on individuals], confiscations, and corrupt court judgments to pay subsidies to the multitude for attending the assembly, then only infrequent assembly meetings and brief court sessions should be held [to minimize the need to take money from the rich to pay the subsidies]; if there are [additional] public revenues, no surplus from them should be distributed to the poor, for this practice stimulates more demand for this sort of distribution; at the same time, the multitude should be kept from becoming overly poor, since this development creates wretched [and thus excess] democracy; money should be provided from public revenues to the poor so that they can acquire land for farming or learn a craft and become better off over time; the rich should be taxed to provide pay [to ordinary citizens to enable them to attend] necessary meetings, but the rich should be released from unnecessary public service; the rich should divide the poor citizens among themselves and then give them enough money [for necessary tools, etc.] so that they can start to work; magistracies should be chosen some by election and some by lot.

1309a: 14-20: In democracies, the rich should be spared and not have their property or their incomes redivided [for distribution to the poor]. They should also be prohibited from spending money on expensive but useless sponsorships of public occasions (liturgies) such as leading choral groups for musical and dramatic festivals or officiating at torch races, even if they want to pay for such sponsorships.

1308b: 10-19: In all systems of government no one is allowed to become overly great [so as to threaten the stability of the state]. Acquiring great prerogatives quickly tends to corrupt people, for not everyone can stand good fortune. Above all, the laws should prevent anyone from becoming especially preeminent in the power derived from his supporters or his wealth; if the laws cannot prevent this, then such persons should be sent to spend time abroad.

1308b: 31-33: It is of the greatest importance in all systems of government to have laws and the rest of governmental administration so arranged that magistrates cannot profit financially from their offices.

1310a: 12-36: The greatest thing of everything that has been mentioned for preserving a system of government, although this is the thing everyone slights, is providing education in accordance with the system of government. For even the most beneficial and widely approved laws bring no benefit if they are not going to be inculcated through education and the habits of the citizens. Education appropriate for a democratic system of government is not to be guided by what brings enjoyment to the partisans of democracy but rather by what makes it possible to run a system of government democratically. In the democracies that seem to be the most democratic, they do what is not advantageous because they define freedom badly. For democracy is thought to be defined by two things: by the majority having authority and by freedom. Justice is then thought of as equality, and equality as that whatever the multitude decides is what is authoritative. Freedom and equality are doing whatever one wishes. So in this sort of democracy everybody lives as he wants and for whatever goal he craves. This is a contemptible thing. Living according to one’s system of government should not be thought of as slavery, but rather as preservation.

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Sparta (in text as “Spartans”).

1337a: 11-1337b3: Everyone would agree that law makers should make the education of the young a special priority. City-states that fail to do this injure their systems of government. The education must suit the system of government, for this preserves it. Since a city-state has a single goal (telos), education must, of necessity, be the same and be given to everyone. Its oversight should be a public matter, not as it is now, with everyone overseeing his own children’s education privately and having them taught what he believes best. Training for things that are shared should be a shared activity done in common. The Spartans might well deserve praise on this score, since they, more than anyone, devote effort to their children, and as a shared task.

1260b: 15-20: It is necessary to educate women and children with an eye to the system of government, if the state is to be worthy. For women make up half of the free population, and from the children will come the partners in the system of government.

1342b: 34: There are three defining principles for education: the middle, the possible, and the appropriate.

1266b: 29-31: There is a greater need to level people’s desires rather than their property (by legislation redividing property holdings or limiting them), and this can be done only when people are sufficiently educated by the laws.

1313a: 41-1313b6: Education, debate, and social groups dedicated to inquiry and discussion are enemies of tyranny, since they encourage intelligent thought and trust [among citizens].

1263b: 36-37: Since a city-state is a multitude, it is necessary to use education to make it into a partnership and a unity.

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(Section 12 of 13)

· Passages: Destroying Democracy ·

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1304b: 20-1305a7: The main cause of the overthrow of democracies is the outrageous behavior of demagogues. By attacking [rich] property owners they motivate them to band together out of fear, and they also spur on the people [to try to bleed the rich]. In this way democracy has been overthrown at numerous places: Cos, Rhodes, Heracleia, Megara, Cyme. This is more or less the way democracies are destroyed. To win popular support, demagogues propose unjust treatment for the notables and thus force them to band together, by making them give up their property for redivision, or by having them expend their resources on public service, or by slandering them to force confiscations of their property.

1311a: 22-26: The same beginnings lead to the overthrow of polities and monarchies alike. For those who are ruled attack monarchies on account of injustice, fear, and contempt.

1301b: 26-29: Factional conflict (stasis) erupts everywhere on account of inequality, or at least it does if no proportion exists between those who are unequal. In general, people engage in factional conflict seeking equality.

1303b: 6-7: In democracies, the notables cause factional conflict because they have [only] an equal share in things even though [in their own eyes] they are not equal [to everybody else but feel superior and therefore feel they should possess more political power, etc. than those whom they see as their inferiors].

1302a: 31-34: Factional conflict is the result of fighting to gain profit and honor and to avoid their opposites, dishonor and penalties.

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1302b: 21-24: Fear causes factional conflict, both when men fear punishment for injustice they have committed and also when they fear being treated unjustly. At Rhodes, for example, the notables rebelled against the people on account of legal prosecutions that were being brought against them.

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1302b: 27-33: Factional conflict occurs in democracies when the rich feel contempt for the disorder and anarchy [of the government], as at Thebes and Megara following defeats in battle and on Rhodes preceding the rebellion [of the notables].

1302b: 15-18: Factional conflict can arise when there is a person or a group whose power exceeds that of the city-state or its government. The institution of ostracism came into being to prevent this.

1308b: 20-22: Since men’s private lives can lead them to seek the overthrow of the system of government, a magistracy is needed to oversee those living against the common advantage of the city-state, for example, in a democracy those living lives disadvantageous for democracy.

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1303b: 7-12: City-states sometimes fall into factions on account of their topography. At Athens, for example, the citizens ones living in the Piraeus [the harbor district] are more democratic than those in the urban center.

1302a: 8-13: Democracy is more stable and less prone to factional conflict than oligarchy. In an oligarchy there are two types of possible conflict, namely, conflict between the oligarchs themselves and conflict between the oligarchs and the people. In a democracy, however, there is only conflict between citizens favoring democracy and citizens favoring oligarchy, as no serious factional conflict arises in the people [that is, those favoring democracy] against themselves.

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(Section 13 of 13)

· Selective Bibliography ·

Translation and Commentary

Aristotle, The Politics. Translated with an introduction by Carnes Lord. (Chicago, 1984). An admirable translation, remarkably close to the Greek but still very readable.

W. L. Newman, The Politics of Aristotle, 4 vols. (Oxford, 1887-1902). A massive critical commentary that has never been equaled. See especially his discussion of Aristotle and Greek democracy in vol. 4, pages xxxvi-lxi.

Interpretative Studies

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Pierre Aubenque, “Aristote et la démocratie,” in Individu et société. L’influence d’Aristote dans le monde méditerranéen. Actes du Colloque d’Istanbul Palais de France, 5-9 Janvier 1986. ed. Thierry Zarcone (Istanbul, 1988 = Varia Turcica X), pp. 31-38.

Jonathan Barnes, “Aristotle and Political Liberty,” in Aristoteles’ Politik. Akten des XI. Symposium Aristotelicum. Friedrichshafen/Bodensee 25.8-3.9.1987, ed. G. Patzig (Göttingen, 1990), pages 249-263, with comments by R. Sorabji, pages 264-76.

Mortimer Chambers, “Aristotle’s ‘Forms of Democracy,’” Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 92 (1961), pages 20-36.

Abraham Edel, Aristotle and his Philosophy (Chapel Hill, 1982), pages 325-328.

Christoph Eucken, “Der aristotelische Demokratiebegriff und sein historisches Umfeld,” in Aristoteles' Politik. Akten des XI. Symposium Aristotelicum. Friedrichshafen/Bodensee 25.8-3.9.1987, ed. G. Patzig (Göttingen, 1990), pages 277-291, with comments by T. H. Irwin, pages 292-95.

Robert A. Goldberg, Democracy and Justice in Aristotle’s Politics, University of Toronto dissertation, 1990; summary in Dissertation Abstracts 51 (1990-91) 1369A.

Andrew Lintott, “Aristotle and Democracy,” Classical Quarterly 42 (1992), pages 114-128.

Claude Mossé, “égalité democratique et inégalité sociales. Le Débat à Athènes au IVème Siècle,” Metis 2 (1987), pages 165-176, 195-206 (esp. pages 201-206 on the Politics).

R. G. Mulgan, Aristotle’s Political Theory. An Introduction for Students of Political Theory (Oxford, 1977), pages 73-75, and “Aristotle’s analysis of democracy and oligarchy,” in A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics, ed. David Keyt and Fred D, Miller, Jr. (Blackwell, Oxford, 1991), pages 307-322.

Oswyn Murray, “Polis and Politeia in Aristotle,” in The Ancient Greek City State, edited Mogens Herman Hansen (Copenhagen, 1993), pages 197-210.

Martha Nussbaum, “Aristotelian Social Democracy,” in Liberalism and the Good, edited R. Bruce Douglas (New York, 1990), pages 203-252.

Josiah Ober, “Aristotle’s Political Sociology: Class, Status, and Order in the Politics,” in Essays on the Foundations of Aristotelian Political Science, edited Carnes Lord and David K. O'Connor (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991), pages 112-135.

Demetris Papadis, “Il concetto di democrazia in Aristotele,” Discorsi 9 (1989), pages 326-340.

C. I. Papageorgiou, “Four or five types of democracy in Aristotle?,” History of Political Thought vol. 11 (1990), pages 1-8.

David Ross, Aristotle, 5th edition (London, 1949), pages 250-263.

Arlene W. Saxenhouse, Fear of Diversity. The Birth of Political Science in Ancient Greek Thought (Chicago, 1992), pages 189-232 (“Aristotle: Diversity and the Birth of Political Science”).

Paul Schollmeier, “The democracy most in accordance with equality,” History of Political Thought 9 (1988), pages 205-209.

Barry S. Strauss, “On Aristotle's Critique of Athenian Democracy,” in Essays on the Foundations of Aristotelian Political Science, ed. Carnes Lord and David K. O'Connor (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1991), pages 212-233.

J. Touloumakos, Die theoretische Begründung der Demokratie in der klassischen Zeit Griechenlands (Die demokratische Argumentation in der “Politik” des Aristoteles) (Athens, 1985).

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