how did Aristotle define democracy

How Did Aristotle Define Democracy? 5 Important Details About the Greek Philosopher’s Perspectives

Democracy, as a term with multifaceted connotations, has long captivated thinkers, from ancient philosophers to contemporary pundits. Intriguingly, Aristotle, renowned for his intellectual prowess, sought to unravel the enigmatic layers of democracy, shedding light on its essence and deciphering its nuanced workings.

So, how did Aristotle define democracy, and what lessons can we glean from his philosophical musings?

In his seminal work ‘Politics,’ the ancient Greek philosopher delved into the intricacies of governance, offering insights that continue to resonate today. The art of democracy, according to Aristotle, lies not merely in the hands of the many, but in fostering an environment where citizens collectively engage in rational discourse, prioritize the common good, and participate actively in decision-making processes.

As we navigate the complex dynamics of modern democracies, Aristotle’s exploration into the foundations of this system remains a poignant source of introspection and guidance.

How Did Aristotle Define Democracy?

Aristotle's quote on democracy
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Often hailed as one of the greatest thinkers in history, Aristotle is a towering figure in the field of philosophy. His contributions span diverse areas such as metaphysics, biology, ethics, and politics. Born in 384 BCE in Stagira, a small town in northern Greece, Aristotle went on to study under Plato at the Academy in Athens.

He later tutored Alexander the Great, before establishing his own school, the Lyceum. It was here that he composed many of his most renowned works, including “The Politics,” where he expounded his thoughts on government and democracy. So, let’s explore Aristotle’s concept of Democracy in the sections below.


1. Aristotle’s Views on Democracy

Aristotle’s political philosophy is unique and multifaceted, but one aspect that stands out is his critique of democracy.

  • According to Aristotle, democracy, by its very nature, is a corrupt form of government.
  • In his view, democracy is flawed because it is based on the rule of the majority.
  • He argued that regardless of who constitutes the majority, whether it be the impoverished or the wealthy, they would invariably seek to advance their own interests, often at the expense of the minority. This inherent bias, Aristotle believed, led to corruption and instability within a democratic system.

This perspective might seem surprising to modern readers, as democracy is often considered synonymous with fairness and equal representation. However, Aristotle’s critique reflects his deep concern for the common good and justice.

He feared that unchecked majority rule could degenerate into tyranny or mob rule, where the rights and interests of the minority are disregarded.

For Aristotle, a good government was not merely about majority rule, but about ensuring justice and fairness for all citizens, pursuing common good over individual interests.

But, this does not mean that Aristotle was wholly against democratic principles. While he saw flaws in pure democracy, he also recognized its merits, such as the principle of equality and freedom, and the inclusion of diverse perspectives. Furthermore, his ideal form of government, which he referred to as a polity, incorporated elements of democracy along with oligarchy, under the rule of law.

In essence, Aristotle’s views on democracy offer a nuanced critique of majority rule while also acknowledging the value of democratic principles.


2. The Corruption of Democracy: Aristotle’s Critique

The Greek philosopher Aristotle had a rather critical perspective on democracy, one that might feel a little out of sync with modern views. His contentious argument was that democracy is inherently corrupt because it allows the majority to serve their own interests, often at the expense of the minority.

No matter who the majority is, whether it’s the impoverished or the wealthy, Aristotle believed they would invariably look out for their own interests and sideline the concerns of the minority. This viewpoint forms the crux of his critique of democracy.

  • Aristotle saw democracy as a danger due to excessive freedom.
  • He argued that in a system where everyone has the right to rule, selfish individuals motivated by personal desires could easily attain power.
  • This, he believed, was a flaw in the democratic system. Such a perspective was not just an elite philosopher’s bias towards the upper class.
  • But, it reflected a deep concern about demagogues exploiting the democratic mechanisms in Athens.

However, it’s important to note that Aristotle’s critique doesn’t necessarily negate the value of democracy, but rather, provides insights into the potential flaws of an unchecked democratic system. These insights continue to resonate in contemporary political discourse around the world.

Contrasting Aristotle’s Perspective with Modern Views

When juxtaposing Aristotle’s critique of democracy with modern views, there’s a stark contrast. Today, democracy is generally heralded as the most just system of governance, allowing for equality, freedom, and the protection of individual rights.

Yet, Aristotle’s concerns about the potential tyranny of the majority and the susceptibility of democracy to demagoguery are echoes we can still hear today.

In fact, we can see elements of Aristotle’s fears manifesting in certain contemporary scenarios.

  • Take, for example, the impatience of some voters in the UK’s Brexit referendum who wanted immediate action post-vote, disregarding legal obligations and processes.
  • Similarly, certain populist parties across Europe have shown disregard for the rule of law, advocating for unilateral dismantling of transnational agreements if that’s what the people demand.

These instances mirror the degenerative form of democracy Aristotle warned against.

Modern Democratic System

On the flip side, our modern democratic systems have evolved to incorporate mechanisms to prevent the very corruption Aristotle feared. The separation of powers into executive, legislative, and judicial branches, each capable of checking and balancing the others, is one such mechanism designed to deter tyranny and promote the rule of law.

Concept of democracy
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This system aims to ensure that no single entity becomes too powerful, echoing Aristotle’s call for moderation in governance.

In essence, while Aristotle’s critique of democracy might seem harsh from a modern lens, it serves as a timeless reminder of the potential pitfalls of any system of governance, including democracy. It emphasizes the need for constant vigilance and the importance of checks and balances to prevent the abuse of power and to protect the rights of all citizens, not just the majority.


3. The Constitutional Government: Aristotle’s Ideal Form of Government

Aristotle, the revered Greek philosopher, was a keen observer of political systems and governance mechanisms. He posited a fascinating concept of an ideal government that has remained thought-provoking for millennia.

This was the constitutional government – a harmonious amalgamation of oligarchy and democracy, governed by the rule of law. But what made this blend so special in Aristotle’s eyes? Let’s delve into his philosophy to find out.

A Blend of Oligarchy and Democracy Under Law

Aristotle believed that government could be governed by one, a few, or many, each with its distinctive merits and drawbacks. However, he held that a constitutional government, blending elements of both oligarchy and democracy, was the ideal form. But why?

This was due to his belief in ‘polity‘ – a state where the rich and the poor respect each other’s rights and the best-qualified citizens rule with the consent of all.

This blend of oligarchy and democracy would ideally function under a set of laws, ensuring fairness, justice, and the general good. Through this fusion, Aristotle envisioned a system wherein the minority’s interests were protected from the majority’s potentially self-serving decisions, addressing one of the main critiques he had against pure democracy.

The Kyklos or Anacyclosis: A Chaotic Cycle

However, Aristotle was not blind to the realities of political systems. His observations led him to acknowledge the kyklos or anacyclosis – a chaotic cycle between the three forms of government; monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. This abrupt and disruptive process reflected the imperfections inherent in each system and the inevitable transition from one form to another.

Aristotle recognized that no form of government was immune to corruption and decay. Even his ideal form, the constitutional government, was not exempt from this cycle. He anticipated that it would inevitably succumb to pressures, internal or external, leading to its transformation into another form of governance.

Nonetheless, despite acknowledging this cycle, Aristotle remained steadfast in his conviction that a constitutional government represented the best possible compromise. It offered a balanced approach, combining the benefits of oligarchy and democracy while mitigating their respective shortcomings. As we navigate our modern political landscape,

Aristotle’s insights continue to offer valuable perspectives on governance, power dynamics, and the pursuit of a just society.


4. Varieties of Democracy and the Principle of Freedom

Aristotle’s examination of democracy extends beyond just its inherent corruption. He also delves into the varying forms of democracy, each with its distinctive qualities and deficiencies.

In this exploration, one principle consistently emerges as an essential pillar of democratic governance: freedom. However, Aristotle’s perspective on freedom is complex and nuanced, reflecting his deep philosophical understanding.

According to Aristotle, freedom is the defining principle of democracy. In his work, “Politics,” he famously stated, “The underlying principle of democracy is freedom, and it is customary to say that only in democracies do men have a share in freedom, for that is what every democracy makes its aim.”

Concept of Freedom

concept of freedom
By rfphoto from Depositphotos

Freedom, in Aristotle’s view, manifests in two significant ways within a democracy.

  • The first is the alternation of ruling and being ruled, a reflection of the equality bestowed upon citizens regardless of merit.
  • The second aspect of freedom is the ability to live as one pleases, a point that Aristotle scrutinizes meticulously.

Aristotle’s critique of this latter form of freedom is profound and arguably counterintuitive. He believes that absolute freedom – allowing people to live as they wish without guidance or restrictions – is flawed because it fails to lead individuals towards the ‘good life’ or ‘telos.

This concept of telos‘ is a central theme in Aristotle’s philosophy, representing the ultimate goal or purpose of human life, which is to attain happiness and fulfillment.

Interestingly, Aristotle praises the collective wisdom of the masses in a democracy. He argues, “Just as a meal done by many is better than a single and simple one, for this reason, a mass (ochlos) can judge many things better than any one man.”

Yet, he cautions that such collective judgment should operate within the bounds of law and reason, not merely be driven by unguided passion or self-interest.

Furthermore, Aristotle observes democratic elements in various ancient city-states, such as Sparta. He notes that despite having an aristocratic system, some democratic elements were present in Spartan governance. For instance, the board of overseers (ephors) was drawn from all citizens, and emphasis was placed on shared meals and communal living.

However, Aristotle criticizes the excessive power vested in the Spartan overseers, indicating a deviation from ideal democratic values.

In sum, Aristotle presents a multi-faceted perspective on democracy, recognizing its various forms while underscoring the foundational principle of freedom.


5. Women and Democracy: Aristotle’s Perspective

Aristotle’s view on women and their role in democracy is a complex facet of his political philosophy, which we will delve into in this section. Throughout his works,

Aristotle made several arguments about women’s reason and authority, heavily influenced by the cultural norms and societal structures of ancient Greece.

Aristotle’s Views on Women’s Reason and Authority

According to Aristotle, “the soul has governance over the body, and reason has domination over the soul.” From this premise, he concluded that women are inferior beings who cannot participate in political activity due to their perceived shortcomings in reason.

Aristotle, along with Plato and other Greek philosophers, regarded women as the inferior sex whose primary roles were to obey their husbands, bear children, and manage the household. This outlook significantly influenced Aristotle’s perspectives on the place of women within a democratic society.

The Vicious Circle Faced by Women in Ancient Greece

In Aristotle’s time, women in ancient Greece faced a vicious circle of exclusion and marginalization. Deprived of political participation and confined to private life, women had little opportunity to prove their potential for reason and leadership.

Yet, it was their lack of public involvement that Aristotle and others cited as evidence of their supposed intellectual inferiority.

This cycle served as a self-fulfilling prophecy, reinforcing prevailing gender hierarchies and further cementing women’s lower status in society.

Aristotle’s Contradictory Views on Women’s Happiness

Despite his views on women’s inferiority, Aristotle paradoxically asserted that a society could not be happy unless women were happy too. He believed that in nature, a common good came from the rule of a superior being. Yet, he did not suggest that men’s superiority contributed to a common good.

This contradiction indicates that Aristotle’s perspectives on women were more nuanced than they might initially appear.

Implications for Aristotle’s Concept of Democracy

Aristotle’s views on women’s role in democracy reveal the limitations of his political philosophy.

  • His belief in women’s inferiority fundamentally contradicts the democratic principle of equal rights for all citizens. This discrepancy makes his critique of democracy somewhat paradoxical.
  • On one hand, he criticized democracy for serving the majority at the expense of the minority.
  • On the other hand, his own views perpetuated the marginalization of a significant demographic group – women.

To sum up, Aristotle’s perspective on women and democracy was heavily influenced by the societal norms of his time. Although some of his views may seem outdated or discriminatory today, they provide valuable insights into the historical evolution of political thought and the ongoing struggle for gender equality.

Concept of Equality
Source- Shutterstock


Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Aristotle?

Aristotle was an ancient Greek philosopher and polymath who made significant contributions to various fields, including politics, ethics, and metaphysics.

What is Aristotle’s numerical perception?

Aristotle’s numerical perception refers to his understanding of the numerical proportions and ratios that govern various aspects of the natural world.

How does Aristotle’s numerical perception relate to democracy?

The article explores how Aristotle’s numerical perception provides insights into the intricacies of democratic systems, such as the balance of powers and the distribution of resources.

What are some key concepts discussed in this article?

The article explores concepts like arithmetical justice, proportional representation, and the idea of societal harmony through numerical balance.

Is Aristotle’s numerical perception still relevant today?

The article argues that Aristotle’s numerical perception continues to hold relevance today due to its cross-disciplinary applications and its potential for informing political discourse.


Conclusion: Reflecting on Aristotle’s Definition of Democracy

In this exploration of Aristotle’s views on democracy, we have delved into his perspectives and critiques. As a recap, the Greek philosopher viewed democracy as a corrupt form of government, primarily due to its reliance on majority rule. He argued that regardless of who the majority may be, they tend to serve their own interests at the expense of the minority.

This critique, while seemingly harsh, offers valuable insights into the potential pitfalls of democracy and the need for checks and balances within any political system.

The exploration of Aristotle’s thoughts on democracy is far from over. His rich and nuanced ideas continue to provide a foundation for ongoing debates about the nature and practices of democratic governance.

To conclude, Aristotle’s political philosophy, particularly his thoughts on democracy, remains relevant, insightful, and thought-provoking.

His ideas prompt us to critically evaluate our own democratic systems and consider ways to improve and strengthen them.

By engaging with Aristotle’s work, we can deepen our understanding of democracy and contribute to ongoing discussions about the principles and practices of democratic governance.

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