Faction and Conspiracy, not a Constitution, Rule Crete

From Sparta we proceed to Crete, where Aristotle in his Politics tries to see what he can salvage from the constitutions in operation there.


The constitutions in Crete, he says, seem to be more primitive versions of Sparta’s — both genealogically and in terms of how “finished” they seem. Some “peripheral populations,” he says, seem to operate under constitutions largely unchanged since they were established generations ago in myth-shrouded antiquity.

The Cretan system resembles that of Sparta, except that there are no kings, and the popular Assembly cannot initiate measures but can only vote assent to those initiated by other political bodies. Like the Spartans, they have a communal meal of citizens, but unlike the Spartans the Cretan meal is paid for out of the common treasury, so poorer citizens are not excluded from it. “In this way all — men, women, and children alike — are maintained at the public expense.”

For obscure reasons, Crete promotes “abstemiousness” and a low birth rate; the latter is accomplished by keeping men and women separated and by promoting male homosexuality.

The Cretan popularly-elected body, the Cosmos, is “an even worse arrangement than the Ephors” (the Spartan body they resemble). It has most of the flaws of the Ephors (e.g. “its indiscriminate composition”), but because it is only chosen from certain powerful families and not from the people as a whole, it doesn’t give the people that safety-valve feeling of having a stake in their government. (He further believes that choosing Cosmoi from the people in general would be less harmful on Crete than it is in Sparta because “there is no profit to be made out of the office” and there is less danger of foreign corruption through bribery due to Crete’s geographic isolation.)

The Elders of Crete are elected from the ranks of veterans of the Cosmos, and, says Aristotle “their exemption from scrutiny and their life-tenure are privileges in excess of their merits; and their power to take decisions on their own judgment, and not govern in accordance with written rules, is dangerous.”

Given that the Cosmoi is a mess and is hard to reform by constitutional means (since the same families always control it) what can be done when it needs a housecleaning? Aristotle says outlandish conspiracies and power plays are the method of choice. Cosmoi are not required to complete their terms, but may resign, and Aristotle implies that inducements are sometimes put on them to do so. Indeed sometimes “there are no Cosmoi at all; and this often occurs, being brought about by the action of powerful people who want to escape government… The powerful men are wont to make up bands… to cause suspensions of all government and form factions and fight each other.” This effectively means that the state is run by power plays rather than by constitutional means.

Index to Aristotle’s Politics