Athenian Government

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Aristotle claimed (Politics, Book III, sn 1) that the defining characteristics of a citizen was ‘that he has a share both in the administration of justice and the holding of office’. On this view a city is merely a collection of such citizens ‘large enough to be self-sufficient’.  This specifically connected with Athenian Democracy in the sense that it was run by an abundance of politically involved, self-sufficient people the people and free of elitist influence.  It is also the ideal which has allowed this lost culture to adopt the stigma of having the most participatory Democratic Government in the global history of Democracy. The hypocrisy of this belief comes into play when one acknowledges the citizens who were excluded from this definition of Athenian Democracy.

In James A. Andrews’ essay Pericles on The Athenian Constitution, he assesses the Pericles’ view of the Athenian political structure. Pericles, a renowned Greek who lived from 495-429 B.C. as a statesmen, orator and general in Athens during its Golden Age, holds views largely similar to that of Aristotle pertaining to the nature of Democracy.  In the opening of his essay, Andrews points out that, “Pericles regards the Athenian constitution as an §leuy°ra polite¤a, a constitution characterized by freedom…Freedom is for Pericles the defining characteristic of the Athenian constitution, the characteristic that makes it truly a democracy[1].”  This theme of freedom is one that is very common in the Athenian interpretation of Democracy and is considered to be the core concept supporting the Athenian constitution. Andrews points out Aristotle’s take on democracy, when he cites his view that:

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Liberty is a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution—that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy. But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn…for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave[2].

Aristotle’s definition of Democracy being the byproduct of liberty is the fundamental relationship which contemporary American Democracy is based upon today.  Aristotle is also wise to point out that while the Democratic structure is reliant on the ideal of free men taking part in government, it is also inherent in the nature of liberty for free men to have a government to oversee their ventures.  Andrews identifies Aristotle’s and Pericles’ view of government based on liberty as the fundamental basis of Athenian Democracy and as the blueprint from which contemporary Democratic philosophy was formed.

The individual citizen’s status as a free man is the starting point of democracy… offices are generally open to all without qualification; terms of office are usually short and appointment is commonly done by lot; reappointment is rare; and payment is provided for public service. The effect is to maximize the number of citizens who actively participate in the magistracies and to minimize the disparity between one citizen’s share and another’s[3].

Here Andrews breaks down the basic workings of the Athenian government, pointing out how the short terms lead to an equal balance of the shares of power, also connecting this with Aristotle’s key argument that “in the democrats’ view, as presented by Aristotle, positive political freedom rests on a concept of the equal share.[4]”Andrews is also quick to point out the faulty, and hypocritical, aspect of this Athenian government run by free men.

All citizens are non-slaves and for that reason are free to live their private lives each as he pleases (tÚ z?n …w boÊleta¤ tiw). But according to the democrats, the individual citizen’s status as a non-slave has political consequences as well, since in their view the only just basis for distributing governance among citizens is the non-slave status of each[5].

It is Andrews view that political conflict arises in that many parties of this Athenian culture are overlooked, specifically being slaves and women.  He identifies this as an overlooked reality within the structure of Athenian Democracy and the core concept the disposes the myth that Athenian Democracy was more participatory than Democratic governments of modern day.

The belief that Athenian Democracy is better than that of contemporary caliber stems from the perceptions that Tocqueville established about the culture.  Wolin S. Sheldon points this out by stating that The implicit assumption, which our contemporaries share with Tocqueville, is that democracy is essentially about “participation” and that fifth-century Athens is to be understood as the extreme version[6].  The Athenian Democrat by Tocqueville’s standard is seen to be one that desires equality and is in opposition to elitist ideals.  Shedlon goes on to decipher the mind of the Athenian democrat pointing out that, The usual claim was that the democrat had a passion for equality not merely because he was envious of distinctions of wealth, social status, birth, education, and virtue, but because he hated them (Sheldon, p. 476).[7]  This concept was a common conscious ideal shared among the citizens of Athens.  It is the driving force behind those who contribute to the Athenian politics.  This is a political system which was devoutly invested in by the citizens of the state and which set the tone for the civics of Democracy.  Josiah Ober grazes this concept when he points out the context with which Athenian political policy was considered a Democracy.

If we take democracy to mean what ancient Greeks took it to mean- “political power wielded actively and collectively by the demos” (i.e., all residents of the state who are culturally defined as potential citizens, regardless of their class or status)- then Athens was a democracy[8].

Ober goes on to point out the fact that Athenian policy actually operated under the premise “power of the people” it did not necessarily characterize its democracy as being pure.  He argues that the Athenian democratic order counterbalanced elite social power, but it still lacked the ability to be considered a model for modern political society.  He credits this to Athens’ exclusion of women, their acceptance of slavery, and their stigma of devout jingoism.  In fact, Athens was sociologically dependant on slavery.  This makes it virtually impossible to view Athenian government as a true Democracy.  The way it overshadows contemporary government is in the sense that, modern government is not as successful at keeping its citizens involved.  There are also many concepts of the sociological culture of Athens that Aristotle neglects, much of which had to do with the cultural climate of that era left behind by the likes of Plato and Socrates.

            In his essay Athenian Demagogues, M. I. Finely analyses the nature of Athenian policy making and the corruption that lied within it.  He does this through reviewing the chronicles of Thucydides, a renowned Athenian who kept record of the governmental conflicts following Athens defeat in Sicily in 413 B.C.  In the chronicle, Thucydides refers to Athens rule under Pericles citing that, “the government was a democracy in name but in reality rule by the first citizen.  His successors were more equal to each other, and each seeking to become the first man they even offered the conduct of affairs to the whims of the people.[9]”  Here Thucydides sheds light on the vulnerable aspect of Athenian policy pertaining to the control of leadership.  Finely sums up the resolution of this conflict for power by stating that, “in short, after the death of Pericles Athens fell into the hands of demagogues and was ruined.[10]”  Finley is adamant about pointing out that the term ‘demagogue’ was his addition to describing the conflict and was never used in Thucydides’ records.  Finley’s definition of a demagogue is one who leads based on self interest.[11]  He recognizes this as a very detrimental attribute and largely what led to the fall of Athens.

In fact, history shows that every official in any given office usually tends to take actions to increase the power of the government, whether state or federal, regardless of party classification.  This is a formula specifically structured to maintain a minority class of wealthy elite to rule over the majority.  The only difference between then and now is technological advancement and experience in the elitist control of the masses.  If it were not for the presence of these traits in American society, there would be no real physical change to analyze. In a sense, nothing has really changed; money is still as much the emperor of our nation now, as it was then.

Until the twentieth century both scholars and the public revered the Framers as demigods and canonized the Constitution as the crowning symbol of a democratic revolution against tyranny. However, the many publicized political and corporate scandals of the Progressive Era in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries influenced historians to begin viewing the Constitutional Convention with a more jaundiced eye. (Manville, 2003)

In his essay, The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens, PB Manville, convinced that men were motivated primarily by economic self-interest and that class conflict pervaded human events, argues that the founders carried out a counterrevolution by creating a reactionary document to protect their interests against popularly controlled communities within Athens that passed alternative regulations, debtor laws, and other measures that favored small farmers and artisans at the expense of wealthy creditors (2003). To prove their case they pointed to the many provisions in the Constitution that checked popular sovereignty: the difficult procedure for adopting amendments, the judicial veto, the election of senators by state legislators, the election of the president by an electoral college, the appointment of Supreme Court justices by the executive, and the awesome power conferred to the central government to suppress popular dissent. Thus, the Constitution was equipped with a system of minority checks and vetoes designed to prevent majority rule (Maville, 2003).

He further points out how Thucydides was able to recognize the difference in how Pericles was able to make Athenian Democratic policy work in the favor of Athens and why his successors were not, when Thucydides says, “because of his prestige, intelligence, and known incorruptibility with respect to money, Pericles was able to lead the people as a free man should.  He led them instead of being led by them.  He did not have to humour them in the pursuit of power…[12].” Here Thucydides makes it very clear that the attitude which made the executive carryout Athenian Democratic policy most efficiently was one of a free man.  This directly coincides with Aristotles concept of the  While it is fair to say Aristotle proclaimed Athenian Democracy as being stronger than it resolves itself to be, it would be untrue to argue that he disregarded the possibility for corruption.  This is due to the fact that his argument for the basis of an efficient and virtuous Democracy is one which is run by free men; when Athens does eventually fall, it is at the hands of men whom Thucydides argues are anything but free.  If anything, this makes Aristotle’s stance on democracy more credible.  In response to what is disregarded, Aristotle does overlook the contribution of the immoral free Athenian, or the influence of human morality on his formula for a fluid Democracy.

             Aristotle’s philosophies are widely known throughout contemporary Western culture; but at the same time, he fails to incorporate his philosophy pertaining to the moral makeup of humans with his political views.  The end result is a very vulnerable Athenian government. Aristotle organizes his critique in a list of six main arguments three of which he titles: (2) Problems in the Current Beliefs About Moral Strength and Moral Weakness, (5) Moral Weakness and Brutishness (6) Moral Weakness in Anger.  In Problems in the Current Beliefs About Moral Strength and Moral Weakness, Aristotle points out Socrates’ view that one can not commit an immoral act knowingly.  He talks about the blameless aspect of moral weakness, which he basically opposes and views as opinion. The problems we might raise are. [As to (3):] how can a man be morally weak in his actions, when his basic assumption is correct [as to what he should do]? Some people claim that it is impossible for him to be morally weak if he has knowledge [of what he ought to do] Here it is clear that Aristotle basically feels the term morally weak should not be applied to those who have an understanding of their moral responsibility but lack the willingness to accept it. In Moral Weakness and Brutishness, Aristotle argues that brutishness can not be classified as moral weakness.  He basically constitutes brutishness as habitual wicked acts that aren’t committed in a conscious manner but as the result of disease or cultural tradition.  He describes this best when he says, the female who is said to rip open pregnant women and devour the infants; or what is related about some of the savage tribes near the Black Sea, that they delight in eating raw meat or human flesh…these are characteristics of brutishness (pg 228, line 20-25).  Aristotle is very devout in pointing out that as heinous as these acts are these individuals are in a culture where they have no sense that what they are doing is wrong.  He makes this same connection with homosexuality, which he says is often the product of sexual abuse.  Finally, in Moral Weakness in Anger, Aristotle argues that anger is also free from the judgment of moral weakness. He says, the more underhanded a person is, the more unjust he is.  Now, a hot-tempered man is not underhanded; nor is anger; it is open.  Furthering this argument, Aristotle points out that people who act in response to their anger are acting in pain, whereas those who dish unprovoked insults are in pursuit of pleasure at another’s expense.

            In sum, Aristotle’s concept of Athenian Democratic policy is one which is reliant on the moral values of free men.  While Aristotle’s views on citizen morality and ethics are widely documented, he fails to integrate them with his ideal Democracy.  This leads to many vulnerabilities within the structure of Aristotle’s Democracy.  For instance, the consequences, as Andrews refers to, that can potentially lead to political and social conflict in the Athenian state are largely the result of the Athenian moral approval of slavery and the disregard for the civil rights of Athenian women.  This can be deemed as the core flaw in the Athenian Democratic system that led to corruption.  The most ironic factor of this is that Aristotle’s argument pertaining to what makes a successful Democracy still reigns true.  It is his view that a Democracy run by free citizens will prosper; and, it is fare to say that if Athenian Democratic policy had permitted women and slaves to participate freely in the Athenian Democratic process, than Athens might still be affluent today.

Work Cited

AB Bosworth, ‘The Historical Context of Thucydides` Funeral Oration’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 120. (2000), pp. 1-16, on JSTOR at:

A French, ‘Pericles’ Citizenship Law’, Ancient History Bulletin, July-Sept 1994, pp 71-5

Andrews, James A ‘Pericles on the Athenian Constitution’, American Journal of Philology 125 (2004) 539–561, on Project Muse

Christian Meier, The Greek Discovery of Politics, Inter Nationes, 1990

Edward M. Harris, ‘Pericles` Praise of Athenian Democracy’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 94. (1992), pp. 157-167 on JSTOR at

Finley, M. I., ‘ Athenian Demagogues’, Past and Present, No. 21. (Apr., 1962), pp. 3-24.

Stable URL:

James McGlew, ‘”Everybody wants to make a speech”: Cleon and Aristophanes on politics and fantasy’, Arethusa 29 (1996) 339–361 (on Project Muse)

Josiah Ober, ‘Public Speech and the Power of the People in Democratic Athens’,
PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Sep., 1993), pp. 481-486, on JSTOR at:

PB Manville, The Origins of Citizenship in Ancient Athens, Princeton UP, 1990, especially ch 1, ‘What was Athenian Citizenship?’ and ch 6.

SD Lambert, The Phratries of Attica, Uni of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1993, esp ch 1

Sheldon S. Wolin, ‘Democracy: Electoral and Athenian’, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Sep., 1993), pp. 475-477, on JSTOR at:

Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, translation of Thomas Hobbes (1629)

[1] (Andrews, p.540-1) Andrews, James A ‘Pericles on the Athenian Constitution’, American Journal of Philology 125 (2004) 539–561, on Project Muse

[2] (Andrews, p.541)
[3] (Andrews, p.542)
[4] (Andrews, p.542)
[5] (Andrews, p.542)
[6] (Sheldon, p.475) Sheldon S. Wolin, ‘Democracy: Electoral and Athenian’, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Sep., 1993), pp. 475-477
[7] Same as above.
[8] (Ober, p.481) Josiah Ober, ‘Public Speech and the Power of the People in Democratic Athens’, PS: Political Science and Politics, Vol. 26, No. 3. (Sep., 1993), pp. 481-486

[9] (Finley, p.3) Finley, M. I., ‘ Athenian Demagogues’, Past and Present, No. 21. (Apr., 1962), pp. 3-24.
[10] (Finley, p.4)
[11] (Finley, p.4)
[12] (Finley, p.4)

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