Aristotle’s Advice for Democracies

In the opening chapters of book Ⅵ of the Politics, Aristotle takes a closer look at democracy in theory and practice.


“Liberty” is the usual principle behind democracy, Aristotle says, and what is typically meant by this is something along these lines: people take turns being the ruler and being the ruled, the majority makes the decisions, and people are generally left alone to live as they please (or, to the extent that they are ruled over, they at least get to rule over others in turn).

Common features Aristotle identifies in democratic governance include:

  • Everyone can vote and can be elected for office.
  • The rule of all over each, and of each (by turns) over all.
  • Offices are filled by lot (unless they require some specialized skill).
  • There is no property qualification for office.
  • Office holders are term-limited and cannot hold the same office twice in succession.
  • Important cases are tried by jury.
  • The legislature is the most powerful and sovereign body.
  • Government service is a paid position.
  • Officials are not typically distinguished by birth, wealth, or education.

There is a tension between the equality of citizens championed by democrats and the majoritarian power wielded in democracy, which in effect means that whichever class has a majority rules over the other class and is politically superior to them. In a democracy, this is typically the poor ruling over and exploiting the oligarchs, whose meek votes aren’t sufficient to protect them from plunder.

Aristotle toys with the idea of a possible remedy for this: a form of proportional voting in which each person gets a vote that is weighted according to their property. This, he says, might cause the propertied few to have more “equal” representation in a democratic forum.

Another way this might be accomplished, he says, is through a sort of bicameralism. Have a popular assembly and an oligarchical one each vote on the same questions. Where they agree, everything is hunky-dory and the polis is in consensus. Where they disagree, appeal next to a combined assembly in which everyone’s vote is weighted by their property value; this proportionally-voting assembly has the final word.

(As an aside, I noted this epigram at the end of chapter ⅲ: “It is always the weaker who go in search of justice and equality; the strong reck nothing of them.” I’d been reading Sue Prideaux’s excellent new biography of Nietzsche, I Am Dynamite!, during breaks from the Politics so this made me smile.)

Aristotle says that the best forms of democracy are found in populations with a strong agricultural base. This is in large part because the common people are located far from the government seat and are busy with their farms, so they are not often tempted to use their democratic rights: if they can elect and audit their rulers, they are usually satisfied to let them be otherwise. The system is nominally democratic, which flatters the people, but the people who actually hold office and take part in government affairs are usually the wealthier townies, which pleases the oligarchs. If the oligarchs don’t get haughty or out-of-hand, they can usually do more or less as they please.

It can be a good idea for a well-functioning democracy of this sort to take measures to ensure the perpetuation of its small farm-holder base and discourage the concentration of land ownership. This can be done by requiring farms to be inherited within the farmholder’s family, and by prohibiting people from mortgaging their farms or putting them up as security.

Compared to one with an agricultural or pastoral base, a democracy centered around manufacturing or a marketplace is less stable. Being more urban, its citizenry are closer to government and are more likely to meddle in it. Their votes may swamp those of the outlying agriculturalists and create an additional source of division.

In a democracy, even an extreme one, you don’t want to extend the franchise to all the riff-raff. Stop when you can. If you let everyone in, the quality of things will go down and you’ll just end up exasperating everyone, particularly the oligarchs.

Among the ways of strengthening a democracy are to disrupt old allegiances, groups, and traditions and establish new ones by bringing people together in fora organized around the democracy.

Democracies, like tyrannies, tend to be less-restrictive about the liberties of women, children, and slaves, when compared to oligarchies. Democracies can be popular, and not just among those groups, for their relative permissiveness, as people generally prefer to live more freely.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics