Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle

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It's not clear what form of government he thought was ideal.


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

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

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

    Demos HomeSummary.Introduction.Glossary.Instructions for readingpassages.Passages: Dening the CityState.Passages: Dening theCitizen.Passages: Dening theSystem of Government.Passages: DeningDemocracy.Passages: Types ofDemocracy.Passages: CreatingDemocracy.Passages: PreservingDemocracy.Passages: DestroyingDemocracy.Selective Bibliography.Index of CitationsGeneral IndexDemos Home

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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)


    Ancient Greek democracy has regularlyaKracted the aKention of modern politicalscientists as part of the discussion of the theory and practice ofdemocratic systems of government. By far the most important ancienttext for this discussion is the Politics of Aristotle. Studying whatAristotle has to say about democracy in the Politics is challenging forseveral reasons. First of all, his remarks on the subject are spread widelythroughout this extended work. The challenge is further increased bythe discursive character of Aristotles arguments in the Politics, whichfor one thing mix discussions of theoretical principles for systems ofgovernment with observations about actual Greek states of Aristotlestime (and before it). Finally, there is the strong possibility that thetraditionally accepted order of the eight Books or chapters of thePolitics is not the order in which Aristotle meant his arguments to bepresented.

    (Section 2 of 13)


    The goal of this article is to provide one possible aid for thosewishing to meet this challenge. It therefore oers a series of topicalheadings under which selected passages relevant to the study of democracy in the Politics arerearranged. That is, under each topic the passages are listed not in the order in which theyoccur in the Politics, but are instead arranged in an order that aKempts to suggest connectionsin thought between Aristotles various remarks on democracy. The passages are paraphrasedrather than translated word for word, although the paraphrases of the shorter excerptsaKempt to stay as close to the Greek wording as is practical. Since the paraphrased passagesare meant to serve as jumping-o points for consideration of the full text of the Politics, eachpassage has an active link to the full text of the Politics. A glossary of Greek terms and a veryselective bibliography of recommended print readings are also included.

    Since the approach adopted for this site rearranges the order ofmaterial on democracy from the Politics, it necessarily removes eachpassage from its context in order to suggest connections in thought that might not be easy to

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    grasp when the text is read serially from beginning to end. This displacement of the passagessuggests an interpretation of the connections in Aristotles thought on democracy in thePolitics. The potential danger of this method, of course, is that reading excerpted andparaphrased passages without considering their full context can be seriously misleading. Itmust be strongly emphasized, therefore, that reading the Politics thoroughly from beginningto end (and more than once!) is the only way to try to understand fully its complex andinterwoven arguments. With this caution rmly in mind, users can consider the arrangementof excerpted passages as a guide to further study of Aristotles reections on ancient Greekdemocracy.

    In the environment provided by electronic publication, all readers can immediately confrontour implied interpretation with the underlying evidence and oer suggestions forimprovement by electronic response to the author and contributors. In this way thecollaborative work that produced this article can continue as a scholarly conversation on awide scale.

    (Section 3 of 13)


    Every aKempt has been made to be consistent in the translation of crucial Greek terms, suchas polis, but the exibility 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 themany in what he denes as the straight or correct system of government of this type. (Bycontrast, he refers to rule by the many in a diverging and thus erroneous system asdemocracy.) (See this word in selections from Aristotle, courtesy of the Perseus DigitalLibrary; see this word in all Perseus texts.)

    System of government for politeia when Aristotle uses the wordin its generic sense, which is conventionally translated into Englishas constitution. (This departure from convention is to avoid thepotential ambiguity of the term constitution, which as a familiar term in the United Statestoday is usually taken to mean a formal, wriKen document prescribing the structure ofgovernment. The constitutions of ancient Greek city-states were often not wriKen down, atradition found today, for example, in the United Kingdom.) (See this word in Perseusselections 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 threestraight systems of government (orthai politeiai), which are kingship, aristocracy, and polity.(See parekbasis in Perseus selections from Aristotle; see parekbasis in all Perseus texts. Seeoccurences of orthos within ve words of politeia in Perseus selections from Aristotle; in allPerseus texts.)

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

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

    (Section 4 of 13)

    Instructions for reading passages

    Important information on links

    The links from each passage are to the full text of the Politics in bothan on-line Greek text and an accompanying English translationmaintained by the Perseus Digital Library at Tufts University.Passages are cited, following the most precise standard form ofreference to the Politics, as a four-digit number followed by the leKer a or b (that is, 1253a,1274b, and so on) to indicate a particular section of the work. The precise location of the citedpassage within a section is indicated by the line numbers that follow the citation of thesection. (This reference system is derived from the Greek edition of the Politics published byImmanuel Bekker in Berlin in 1831.)

    Two crucial warnings

    Each section (e.g., 1253a, 1274b, etc.) is presented as continuous text. The line numbersfollowing the section designation are indicated in the on-line Greek text in multiples of ve,while the corresponding line numbers in the accompanying English translation appear everytwenty lines in brackets, but the line divisions as represented in your Web browser may notcorrespond exactly to this numeration.

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

    Introduction to the groups of excerpted passages

    The rst three groups of excerpted passages provide context for the remaining groups. Therst of the three concerns elements of the denition of the ancient Greek city-state (polis) in thePolitics because Aristotles discussion of democracy pertains to this type of political state. Thenext group concerns the denition of the citizen because it took citizens to constitute a systemof government in the city-state, of which democracy was one. The third concerns the

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    denition of dierent systems of government in the city-state, especially the notion thatdemocracy is, in Aristotles view, a diverging system of government. The remaining groupsof 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 isdisputed. These book divisions do not appear in the continuous t