Aristotle discusses democracy in two distinct places in the Politics. The first discussion takes place in book four where Aristotle lays out the kinds of democracies. The second place is in book six where Aristotle discusses the nature of democracy, equality in democracy, types of democracy and how to preserve it. While democracy is not one of the three best regimes, as it is a deviant regime, it does possess qualities that Aristotle finds admirable for politics. While our understanding today is that every nation, regardless of its traditions, ought to have a democracy, Aristotle differed believing each polis ought to have a regime best suited for the type of inhabitants. We can, however, learn much from Aristotle’s discussion on democracy because it is so popular in theory throughout the world.
Aristotle first lays out the variations on democracy in book four of the Politics and they are, “is that which is particularly said to be based on equality. The law in this sort of democracy asserts that there is equality when the poor are no more preeminent than the well off, and neither have authority, but they are both [treated as] similar(1291b29-33). The second form, “where offices are filled on the basis of assessments, but these are low, and it is open to anyone possessing [the amount] to share, while anyone losing it does not share(1291b39-41). The third form is, “where all citizens of unquestioned descent share, but the law rules(1291b41-1292a1). The, the fourth form of democracy is, “where all have part in the offices provided only they are citizens, but the law rules(1292a1-4). The final form of democracy is, “the same in other respects, but the multitude has authority and not the law(1292a4) For those of us living today it is important to outline each of the different types of democracy as it is believed all should have the same type of democracy, namely a pseudo American style democracy.
However, why does Aristotle not simply stop at this? Democracy is a deviant regime that is not one of the three best regimes. As Leo Strauss states, “We must now say a few words about Aristotle’s alleged anti-democratic prejudice…The democracy of the city is characterized by the presence of slavery: citizenship was a privilege not a right.”(35). Aristotle himself begins chapter two of book six by stating the basic principles of democracy are equality (based on numbers, not merit) and freedom (1317a40-1317b13). Democracy is characterized primarily for Aristotle by these two traits; all democracies possess these two fundamental principles. For Aristotle democracy can be characterized even more by, “lack of birth, poverty and vulgarity” (1317b40-41).
Having finished his discussion of the character of democracy Aristotle goes on to discuss the equality in democracy. For Aristotle the equality and justice in democracy is in fact not equal or just. Because the majority, in democracy the poor, has authority in the democracy it is Aristotle’s belief that the majority will confiscate the riches of the minority. Thus democracy is fundamentally not entirely just or entirely equal. Aristotle states:
But concerning equality and justice, even though it is very difficult to find the truth about these matters, it is still easier to hit on it than it is to persuade those who are capable of aggrandizing themselves. The inferior always seek equality and justice; those who dominate them take not thought for it. (1318b1-5.)
Democracy is therefore not at all entirely equal and just as it proclaims to be according to Aristotle. Simply because the majority rules in democracy does not mean it is equal and just. When there is a vote there will be some left on the outside of what is decided. This is a problem with democracy as Leo Strauss points out, “democracy did not allow the claim to freedom of man as man but of freeman as freeman and in the last analysis of men who are by nature freemen.”(35.) Democracy for Aristotle was the rule of the majority, the citizens, who had the freedom to do whatever they wanted without constraints, which stands in complete contrast to the modern liberal democracy.
Yet, why does Aristotle feel the need to bring up the topic of democracy at the beginning of book six? Aristotle states, “And democracies are more stable than oligarchies and more durable on account of those of the middling sort, who are more numerous and have a greater share in the prerogatives in democracies than in oligarchies.”(1296a12-15.) The most suited for ruling according to Aristotle is the middle class, and if there is a large middle class the best form of government is democracy. Book four lends credibility to democracy as at least being superior to oligarchy in the sense of stability. There can be a parallel drawn between his argument for democracy in a polis with a large middle class in book four and his argument for democracy in book six. At the beginning of book six chapter four Aristotle writes, “Of the four sorts of democracy, the best is the one that is first in the arrangement spoken of in the discourses preceding these; it is the oldest of them all”(1318b6-8.) The first sort of democracy spoken of is the farming democracy; the democracy where all share in rule. Aristotle then goes on to say further, “The best people is the farming sort, so that it is possible also to create [the best] democracy wherever the multitude lives from farming or herding.” (1318b9-11.) Like in book four when there is a large middle class there ought to be democracy, in book six when there is a large farming or herding multitude there ought to be democracy.
However, democracy also tends to be the form of government all others turn into. In a society of equals the tendency is toward democracy, not aristocracy or oligarchy or tyranny. Leo Strauss mentions, “It could seem that democracy is not merely one form of the [polis] among many but its normal form, or that the [polis] tends to be democratic.”(p36.)
In book three Aristotle lays out the regime in general and seems to point toward democracy as the best kind of regime unless there is one superior in virtue in which case monarchy is the best. Strauss explains this paradox, “Aristotle’s own philosophy-belongs rather to its dusk: the peak of the [polis] and the peak of philosophy belong to entirely different times.”(37.) Democracy for Aristotle works as the best regime when, “the common people is not too depraved” (37.) In book three he lays out that the rule of the many is better than the rule of the few. Thus it is in book three that Aristotle comes closest to accepting democracy before ultimately citing Aristocracy, Monarchy and Polity as the best regimes.
The question that arises next is why is it important for a person living in a modern liberal democracy to study Aristotle’s account of democracy? Leo Strauss states, “Hence modern democracy would have to be described with a view to its intention from Aristotle’s point of view as a mixture of democracy and aristocracy.”(35.) Furthermore, democracy in the Aristotelian sense meant that one could do as they wish; yet in modern democracy one is more restrictive than Aristotle’s democracy. In order to understand the modern liberal democracy one must understand Aristotle’s democracy. Our democracy is not a “true” democracy in the Aristotelian sense, but rather as Strauss says “a mixture of democracy and aristocracy” (Strauss 35.) In modern times we have almost forgotten one of the fundamental principles of democracy as laid out by Aristotle, freedom. In today’s world most “democracies” claim that their people are free but in reality are heavily restricted.
Aristotle’s account of democracy, and even oligarchy, is important in another respect as well. Harvey Mansfield says, “According to Aristotle, almost all modern, civilized regimes are democracies or oligarchies. They may be defined as the rule of the many and of the few; in fact, since it happens that the poor are many and the rich few (questionable in contemporary America), they are the rule of the poor and of the rich.”(1) It is for this reason that the study of democracy in the Aristotelian sense is also important. Because everyone is compelled to classify themselves as a democracy or a republic, we should study Aristotle so that we know the differences in regimes and are not mistaken to call a Communist nation a democracy instead of an oligarchy.
For Aristotle democracy means equality and freedom, two characteristics not found together in any other regime. In books three, four and six Aristotle makes the case that democracy should be over the other sorts. Aristotle, like we living today, believes that democracy ought to be the form of government chosen by peoples. Democracy is what the polis tends toward, because all are equal and free. Today we believe everyone should be democracy because of a similar belief, though our understanding of equality and freedom might differ than that of Aristotle. We could learn a lot from Aristotle simply because we are not all democracies in the Aristotelian sense. Further, in an age where government officials are trying to place democracy on a society with absolutely no history of the regime, using Aristotle’s arguments might make democracy more appealing throughout the world.