In sections 3.9-3.13 of his magnum opus Politics, Aristotle puts forward several arguments for democracy within the larger context of his political theorizing. Although Aristotle has some reservations about the democratic system and a few of its implications, he assigns democracy a crucial role in achieving the good of the state and the common interest of the citizens. In the following essay I will outline Aristotle’s discussion of democracy and focus specifically on his arguments therein. Following this I will conclude with a short assessment of these arguments in which I put forward a mitigated acceptance of Aristotle’s position.
Aristotle begins his discussion on democracy by pointing out the flaws in the common conception of justice found in other forms of government. For many individuals, justice is seen as equality among equals (such as equality among the rich in an oligarchy) that allows for inequality among those of unequal status. Aristotle criticizes such a conception for not only coming from the limitations of man’s own judgment, but also for its unnecessary universalizing tendencies: “one party, if they are unequal in one respect, for example wealth, consider themselves to be unequal in all” (Politics 1280.
23). Instead, Aristotle points out that justice comes through equal relations of citizens and proper distribution of goods. Tyranny certainly does not ensure this and oligarchy focuses too much on property; however, for Aristotle, the state should exist in order to encourage the good life—a life in which citizens pursue the good together. Mere economic alliances meant to ensure good business or Hobbesian social contracts meant to ensure security are too loose in their bonds. Aristotle demands more: “political society exists for the sake of noble actions” (Politics 1281.2).
With this view of the purpose of the state, Aristotle moves to explicate the benefits of democracy. Neither a government of confiscation or tyranny are fully just insofar as they both lead citizens to suffer unnecessarily. Likewise, an oligarchy that allows only “good” individuals to rule cannot be the best system, for not only does the segregation of “good” from “bad” create dishonor among the excluded majority, but one man or a small group of men are far more susceptible to allow unhealthy passions to dictate their ruling decisions. Democracy, argues Aristotle, offers a better alternative to these insofar as the many, comprised of individuals, are more likely to rule rightly. As individuals their ruling power is limited, but when they meet they form a collective that brings far greater benefit to the state. In this Aristotle relates democracy to a feast in which the contribution of many proves “better than a dinner provided out of a single purse” (Politics 1281.3). Not only do the many have far more to contribute as far as talents and abilities, but the collective also becomes a better judge of aesthetics and judicial matters. In other words, even though a specific element of a specific individual may be more perfect than the average element provided by the collective, the “scattered elements combined” (Politics 1281.13) make for a better whole in general. Including the poor into such an agreement may have its risks, such as corruption or embezzlement, but overall the mixing of the citizenry promises to create greater unity and less state enemies.
Nevertheless, democracy is not without its problems. One of the biggest issues Aristotle faces is the problem of expertise. In a democracy where all individuals are given equal respect, there is often a tendency towards levelling, in which expertise is divided among individuals who lack proper skills. When it comes to the areas of health or geometry, for example, those who function best are those trained as physicians and geometricians. In a similar way, Aristotle asks whether or not those who have the responsibility for running a state or participating in elections should be restricted to the politicians that understand the craft of politics. To this objection, Aristotle argues that, although a single individual may be far worse than a person of expertise in a specific field, when taken collectively in a democratic body, the many in fact function better in all governmental posts than the individual would. This is consistent with Aristotle’s conviction that the many should have greater authority than the few. Power lies in the court and its laws— never in the individual—and when these laws are good they are supreme in the state.
However, elevation of good laws as supreme demands the question of what is considered a good law. In this Aristotle returns to his teleological framework and argues that since the telos of any science or art is the greatest good, the greatest good in a state should also be the end toward which politics aims. For a democratic state, the greatest good is the common interest of its citizens, which itself is coined in terms of equality. The equal state should not determine which citizens get the greatest benefits based on background, but on abilities and excellence. For example, Aristotle argues that flute players should not be given the best flutes based on aristocratic ties, but rather on the excellence of the players’ performance with the flute. For Aristotle, laws that emphasize equality and reward for excellence help the democratic state toward bettering the common interest and therefore are good laws. However, he also points out that in a state that promotes the good, virtue must have a superior position.
Virtue is crucial to help determine how rulers should rule the democratic state. Different groups and classes of society have differing values and descriptions of what makes good leaders within their own circles, but Aristotle notes that when all of these classes are joined in the unified democratic state, it is no longer these relative standards that are most important, but virtue. Here, at the end of his argument in this section, Aristotle makes clear the unity of equality and virtue: “Now what is just or right is to be interpreted in the sense of ‘what is equal’; and that which is right in the sense of being equal is to be considered with reference to the advantage of the state, and the common good of the citizens. [I]n the best state [a citizen] is one who is able and willing to be governed and to govern with a view to the life of virtue” (Politics 1283.40-1284.2). Democracy according to Aristotle should always pursue the common interest, and in this definition, the common interest will always include the equal pursuit of virtue.
Aristotle’s arguments for democracy are convincing in one respect; however, his specific Greek world-view colors his position enough to warrant mitigated acceptance. On the one hand I find convincing the principles behind Aristotle’s approval of democracy. Plato, in his Republic argues that in a context of vice, monarchy or oligarchy would be the worst form of government and democracy would be the best. It seems that Aristotle works with a similar assumption: if people act out of evil or uncontrolled passion, the collective group will often (but not always) express itself in less extreme forms. History has confirmed this idea in that the American democracy has acted in a less evil fashion than most, if not all historical dictatorships. However, Aristotle’s assumption about the positive functions of the collective, namely that it will better purse constructive actions, be more equipped and more impartial also strikes me as correct in that individuals have far more bias with respect to justice and far fewer skills or talents than groups. On the other hand, I have difficulty accepting Aristotle’s notion of a virtuous democracy. I appreciate the concept of virtue with respect to character formation in the individual, but with respect to the goal of democracy the notion of virtue put forward by Aristotle is far too Greek to have successful applicability in a modern pluralistic postmodern democracy. Whereas individuals must certainly contribute their moral opinions to the ruling of the state, virtue coined in Aristotle’s terms is far too specific to allow for equal democratic participation today. The state should never try to make people good, but instead should offer a libertarian space in which individuals can foster such goodness themselves. Because Aristotle’s description of democracy is not as applicable today as it was in 4th century Greece, I can only accept it in partial; nevertheless, Aristotle’s desire that honor and equality be given to citizens in order to facilitate their pursuit of goodness demands our attention and continued interaction.
Aristotle. (1941). Politics. (Trans. Benjamin Jowett). New York: Random House.
Cite this Aristotle on Democracy
Aristotle on Democracy. (2016, Jul 21). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/aristotle-on-democracy-2/