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A CRITICAL ANALYSIS OF ARISTOTLE’S OUTLOOK ON DEMOCRACY

INTRODUCTION

Democracy is the in-vogue modus operandi when it comes to the governance and administration of a nation. Though the roots of this concept can be traced back to time immemorial, the term in itself has its roots in Ancient Greece, particularly Athens. ‘Democracy’ was formed by the conjunction of two Greek words i.e. demos and Kratos[1]. Kratos means power or rule while demos can signify either the whole citizenry or a mere part of it. Aristotle never wrote any treatise, particularly on democracy. His ideas on the concept, however, can be derived from his book Politics.

ATHENIAN DEMOCRACY AND MODERN DEMOCRACY

It is important to highlight that democracy, as it is today, is different from what it was during the time of Aristotle. The contemporary democratic system is an evolved system based on a contemporary set of trends and beliefs. Democracy at present has evolved new mechanisms to meet contemporary needs. Athenian Democracy was a direct form of democracy where ordinary citizens directly participated in the state affairs whereas, in several modern democracies, there is the concept of elected representatives.

The concept of citizenship also differed. In Athenian Democracy, a citizen had the power to take part in the deliberative and judicial administration of the state. The residence was not a requisite for citizenship as it would then include slaves and alien residents residing with the citizens. Aristotle stipulated that women, children and the old could not be considered citizens. For him, women are inferior to men and cannot shoulder civic responsibilities; children are young and immature while the old are infirm[2]. Unlike contemporary times, voting rights were only bestowed upon men who owned property.

While contemporary democracies focus on the rights of the citizens, the Athenian democratic system revolves around the duties and capabilities of the citizens to fulfil those duties. In Athens, active participation was mandatory for all citizens. If they failed to fulfil their duties, punishments were given accordingly[3]. However, in the contemporary era, there are no penalties for failure to perform duties as a citizen.

In Aristotelian jargon, democracy is the rule of the indigent or the poor. It is the opposite of oligarchy which Aristotle defines as the rule of the rich. Both the forms of constitutions, according to Aristotle, are deviant with democracy being the lesser of the two evils. However, in contemporary trends, as Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Democracy is a rule of the people, for the people, and by the people”. It does not discriminate based on rich or poor, propertied class or property less, but differs from nation to nation according to the native norms. Generally, rights are not privileges but rather entitlements that are bestowed upon not only the citizens but also the non-citizens.

ARISTOTLE’S IDEA OF ‘DEMOCRACY’

In Book III of Politics, Aristotle broadly classified constitutions based on general welfare i.e. the true form which works for the public interest, and the perverted form which works for the ruler’s interests. These constitutions were further classified based on the number of people who wielded power. A government ruled by one, in its true form, was termed monarchy while in perverted form was tyranny. A government ruled by a few was aristocracy in its true form and oligarchy in its perverted form. Polity was the term coined for the true form of the government of many while its perverted form was termed democracy.

Number of People Wielding Power

General Welfare

True Form

Perverted Form

One

Monarchy

Tyranny

Few

Aristocracy

Oligarchy

Many

Polity

Democracy

Aristotle, in Chapter VI of Book IV of Politics, talks about several varieties of democracy. According to him, the variety in kinds of population and institutions, by their constitution, led to several models of democracies. His book talks about four models of democracy.

The first model is the best model of democracy. It applies where the agrarian populace and owners of moderate property prevail. Aristotle regarded the agrarian population as the best of common people. They were busy with their private affairs and lacked the leisure to attend assemblies and public gatherings. This reduces their political participation to the minimum. Since they don’t have the leisure to get involved in political affairs, they put the law in control. Even to take part in the government, an assessment fixed by law is required. Officials are not elected based on property qualifications but rather on the grounds of capacity.

Aristotle favours this model of democracy the most because it ensures that both the multitudes and the nobles are satisfied and the law is supreme. The poor have no more influence than the rich and vice versa. Neither class is sovereign. It creates an equilibrium between the rich and the poor and is termed Politiea or Polity by Aristotle.

The second model of democracy consists of herdsmen and people who earn their living from cattle. Aristotle favoured this class of people the most after the agrarian populace because their lives resembled the lives of the latter and they were capable soldiers. People were qualified for official positions in the government regardless of their property status as long as they were not disqualified by birth. Aristotle claimed that herdsmen would only take part in political affairs when at leisure. There would be no payment for performing government duties and the government would run by the laws.

Aristotle regards the remaining populace as inferior to the previous ones, thus, also making the remaining two models very inferior. For him, the remaining population leads a mean mode of life with no element of virtue. He refers to manual workers (artisans), market people and wage-earning lower class as the remaining population and deems improvement by education impossible.

Aristotle did not clearly distinguish the third model but he talks about it in Book VI of Politics. All free men could take part in government affairs. Citizens could have a share in the office but were still subjected to the rule of law. It would be easier for the poor to attend assemblies and there would be no element of virtue in the occupations the multitude would engage. It involves a strong presence of the urban population but is restricted by the compromising role of the rural population[4].

The fourth model of democracy is regarded as the worst by Aristotle. It grants citizenship to all regardless of any restrictions. This happens when the state has surplus revenue and spends it subsidizing the participation of the lower class in political affairs. The poor or propertyless are at leisure now and frequent the assembly. They seize this opportunity and use their identity as the majority to use the political machinery in their interests. They work for their wishes and interests with complete disregard for the law. This model represents sectional rule by the poor in its very extreme force.

CONCLUSION

Aristotle is regarded as one of the greatest philosophers to date. Though his bias regarding women and favour for governments like aristocracy and monarchy are staunch examples of him being a product of his era, his insights regarding democracy cannot be completely shunned even today.

One of his most important concerns was the undermining of the rule of law and the prevalence of demagoguery. Even in the contemporary era, there have been instances where the government or the system has bent to the will of the people instead of following the law. For example, the Indian Constitution grants equal rights to equals irrespective of their religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth. Going by the law, women and the LGBTQ+ community would not face biases but the government does not allow them some of the most basic rights because the society or the multitudes are not yet ready for the change.

However, even Aristotle ceded that all governments have negative forms. Despite these setbacks, one cannot deny the effectiveness of democracy in the modern era. It has brought with it many reforms and machinery crucial to an orderly existence. Aristotle was not completely anti-democratic but concerned about the possible pitfalls that came with a democratic system. He preferred a mixed form of government where both the indigent and notables cohabited harmoniously. He also stressed the importance of the middle class and regarded it as a tool to reduce economic inequalities. While many of Aristotle’s concerns still hold relevance, he would approve of the form democracy has evolved to today.

Author(s) Name: Jyeshtha Baranwal (Vivekananda Institute of Professional Studies)

Reference(s):

[1] Charlambos Ioannou Papageorgiou, ‘Aristotle and Democracy’ (PhD thesis, University of London 1991)

[2] Subrata Mukherjee and Sushila Ramaswamy, A History of Political Thought: Plato to Marx (2nd edn, Prentice Hall India Learning Private Limited 2011)

[3]‘Democracy (Ancient Greece)’ (National Geographic Society), <https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/democracy-ancient-greece/> accessed 15 February 2024

[4] Charlambos Ioannou Papageorgiou, ‘Aristotle and Democracy’ (PhD thesis, University of London 1991)