Sunday, July 31, 2011

Aristotle on Democracy and Demagogues

In Search of the Republic--3

After classifying all governments into monarchy, aristocracy, and polity (and of course, their deviations tyranny, oligarchy, and democracy), Aristotle made some interesting observations about democracies. The reader at his point is reminded of Aristotle's definition of democracy:  "a democracy exists whenever those who are free are not well-off, being in the majority, are in sovereign control of government."

This includes all parts of the government. According to Aristotle, there are three elements: "The three are, first, the deliberative, which discusses everything of common importance; second, the officials; and third, the judicial element." A democracy exists when the mass of people control all three elements.

The deliberative element is the assembly of the citizens of the city-state. The tasks of assemblies differ between the city-states. In general, they enact laws, decide the question of war and peace, and elect officials from among themselves to administer the city-state between meetings of the assembly.

These officials, what we might today call the executive, generally assume office through selection by drawing lots. In Aristotle's democracy, where all citizens possess equality, selection to the assembly is not by election but by lot. The citizens take turns ruling and being ruled.

The judicial element, which settles disputes about law, consists of citizens selected by lot. Again, the democratic principle requires that equal citizens take turns in office.

Not all democracies are  alike, however, according to Aristotle. Practices differed among the democracies of his day. He divided them into two general types.

The first rests on the principle of complete equality among all the citizens, “when all alike share most fully in the constitution.” By equality, he meant no property or other qualifications for voting in the assembly of the city-state or serving in its offices. In a second type, a modest property qualification is required. When a person does not meet the property requirement or once having met it subsequently loses it, he can no longer participate in the Assembly, offices, or law courts.

Aristotle added that in some of these constitutions the majority exercises sovereignty over all public questions, “when the multitude is sovereign and not the law."  The democratic assembly gathers and simply votes, much like a jury. Aristotle observed that it is “the demagogues who bring about this state of affairs.” They do this when “they bring every question before the people, and make its decrees sovereign instead of the laws . . . and the multitude follows their lead.” When demagogues bring questions before the people, most often the audience is the poor: “the mass of the poor take they most time off; they have no encumbrances, while the wealthy, who have private affairs to look after, often do not take part in the Assembly and courts of law.” This is especially true of the urban poor. Less affluent farmers sometimes experienced difficulty taking time out from labors in the surrounding countryside to travel into the city for assembly meetings. The urban poor already were there.

When demagogues bring every question before an assembly meeting consisting primarily of the urban poor, this gives rise to factions, pitting the poor and rich against each other. The poor will seek to confiscate the wealth of the rich; the rich will seek to disenfranchise to poor. According to Aristotle, "when those in office ill-treat others and get larger shared for themselves, men form factions both against each other and against the constitution to which they owe their power to act." These factions between poor and rich plagued all city-states in the ancient world.

He noted, however, that in other democracies established laws govern all decisions instead of majority vote. Officials apply the established laws like judges. In fact, Aristotle asserted that where “laws do not rule, there is no constitution.” He argued that “the laws ought to rule over all, in general terms, and the officials ought to make rulings in individual cases.” He suggested that when most of the people are farmers or possess a moderate amount of property, they work in the Assembly to “puts the law in charge” so that the Assembly is not deciding every question and repeatedly requiring them to leave the countryside for assembly meetings. In this way, even a democracy can be a government of laws and not of men.

In describing this last type of democracy, Aristotle began his transition to what he believed to be the best possible government: a mixed regime in which both the wealthy and the poor shared sovereignty. Only this mixed government in which the wealthy and poor shared offices would rule for the common good .

He called it a polity. It later became known as a republic.

That will be the subject of a future post.

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