Aristotle Says Solon Is Not to Blame for Democracy in Athens

The last chapter of the second book of Aristotle’s Politics seems like more of an outline or sketch; lecture notes maybe. T.J. Saunders in his introductory paragraph says that it’s not clear if it was even written by Aristotle.

Aristotle

He gives his point of view on Solon’s political reforms in Athens, and then rushes though a set of miscellaneous other political actors so quickly that we learn little from them.

He says Solon is credited with having “abolished the undiluted oligarchy”, “put an end to the enslavement of people”, and “established the traditional Athenian democracy by mixing the constitution well.” By mixing, he means that the oligarchy, aristocracy, and general populace all have a governmental body to call theirs, the benefits of which he has explained in prior chapters (in short, this contributes to the stability of the state by making everyone feel that they have a stake in it and some decision-making power).

Aristotle says these claims for Solon are somewhat overstated, as the oligarchical and aristocratic elements of the constitution were already in place by the time he came on the scene. But Solon set up “the courts” as a new branch of government, established on democratic principles, and so expanded the political role of the general populace.

Unfortunately, says Aristotle, democracy grew and overtook the Athenian constitution so that in his day things are a bit of a mess. Some people blame this on Solon’s reforms: Successive leaders felt the need to flatter the people by increasing their power and reducing the power of the other branches of government, and now the democratic branch is a sort of tyrant.

Aristotle thinks that’s too simple. He thinks the cause of the unfortunate triumph of democracy in Athens comes from the rise of the navy during the Persian wars. The navy was manned by the common people, who took credit for Athens’s triumphs; “this gave them a great opinion of themselves” and emboldened them to empower demagogues to replace the “respectable men [who] pursued policies not to their liking.” He says all this happened in spite of, rather than because of, Solon’s policies, which gave the common people a much more modest role in government.

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