Throughout this American election season we’ll be sharing some of the many gems of political commentary on offer in the Loeb Classical Library. And where better to start than with the following passage on the features common to democracies, excerpted from Book VI of Aristotle’s Politics, LCL volume 264?
Now a fundamental principle of the democratic form of constitution is liberty—that is what is usually asserted, implying that only under this constitution do men participate in liberty, for they assert this as the aim of every democracy. But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth, and if this is the principle of justice prevailing, the multitude must of necessity be sovereign and the decision of the majority must be final and must constitute justice, for they say that each of the citizens ought to have an equal share; so that it results that in democracies the poor are more powerful than the rich, because there are more of them and whatever is decided by the majority is sovereign. This then is one mark of liberty which all democrats set down as a principle of the constitution.
And one is for a man to live as he likes; for they say that this is the function of liberty, inasmuch as to live not as one likes is the life of a man that is a slave. This is the second principle of democracy, and from it has come the claim not to be governed, preferably not by anybody, or failing that, to govern and be governed in turns; and this is the way in which the second principle contributes to equalitarian liberty. And these principles having been laid down and this being the nature of democratic government, the following institutions are democratic in character: election of officials by all from all; government of each by all, and of all by each in turn; election by lot either to all magistracies or to all that do not need experience and skill; no property-qualification for office, or only a very low one; no office to be held twice, or more than a few times, by the same person, or few offices except the military ones; short tenure either of all offices or of as many as possible; judicial functions to be exercised by all citizens, that is by persons selected from all, and on all matters, or on most and the greatest and most important, for instance the audit of official accounts, constitutional questions, private contracts; the assembly to be sovereign over all matters, but no official over any or only over extremely few; or else a council to be sovereign over the most important matters (and a council is the most democratic of magistracies in states where there is not a plentiful supply of pay for everybody—for where there is, they deprive even this office of its power, since the people draws all the trials to itself when it has plenty of pay, as has been said before in the treatise preceding this one; also payment for public duties, preferably in all branches, assembly, law-courts, magistracies, or if not, for the magistracies, the law-courts, council and sovereign assemblies, or for those magistracies which are bound to have common mess-tables. Also inasmuch as oligarchy is defined by birth, wealth and education, the popular qualifications are thought to be the opposite of these, low birth, poverty, vulgarity. And in respect of the magistracies it is democratic to have none tenable for life, and if any life-office has been left after an ancient revolution, at all events to deprive it of its power and to substitute election by lot for election by vote.
These then are the features common to democracies. But what is thought to be the extreme form of democracy and of popular government comes about as a result of the principle of justice that is admitted to be democratic, and this is for all to have equality according to number. For it is equality for the poor to have no larger share of power than the rich, and not for the poor alone to be supreme but for all to govern equally; for in this way they would feel that the constitution possessed both equality and liberty. But the question follows, how will they have equality? are the property-assessments of five hundred citizens to be divided among a thousand and the thousand to have equal power to the five hundred? or is equality on this principle not to be arranged in this manner, but the division into classes to be on this system, but then an equal number to be taken from the five hundred and from the thousand and these to control the elections and the law-courts? Is this then the justest form of constitution in accordance with popular justice, or is it rather one that goes by counting heads? For democrats say that justice is whatever seems good to the larger number, but advocates of oligarchy think that it is whatever seems good to the owners of the larger amount of property, for they say that the decision ought to go by amount of property. But both views involve inequality and injustice; for if the will of the few is to prevail, this means a tyranny, since if one man owns more than the other rich men, according to the oligarchic principle of justice it is just for him to rule alone; whereas if the will of the numerical majority is to prevail, they will do injustice by confiscating the property of the rich minority, as has been said before. What form of equality therefore would be one on which both parties will agree must be considered in the light of the principles of justice as defined by both sets. For they say that whatever seems good to the majority of the citizens ought to be sovereign. Let us then accept this principle, yet not wholly without qualification, but inasmuch as fortune has brought into existence two component parts of the state, rich and poor, let any resolution passed by both classes, or by a majority of each, be sovereign, but if the two classes carry opposite resolutions, let the decision of the majority, in the sense of the group whose total property-assessment is the larger, prevail: for instance, if there are ten rich citizens and twenty poor ones, and opposite votes have been cast by six of the rich on one side and by fifteen of the less wealthy on the other, four of the rich have sided with the poor and five of the poor with the rich; then the side that has the larger total property when the assessments of both classes on either side are added together carries the voting. But if the totals fall out exactly equal, this is to be deemed an impasse common to both sides, as it is at present if the assembly or law-court is exactly divided; either a decision must be made by casting lots or some other such device must be adopted. But on questions of equality and justice, even though it is very difficult to discover the truth about them, nevertheless it is easier to hit upon it than to persuade people that have the power to get an advantage to agree to it; equality and justice are always sought by the weaker party, but those that have the upper hand pay no attention to them.