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Historic Documents

Aristotle, on Democracy

If the people are not utterly degraded, although individually they 
may be worse judges than those who have special knowledge - as a 
body they are as good or better.

As a feast to which all the guests contribute is better than a 
banquet furnished by a single man, so a multitude is a better 
judge of many things than any individual.

Again, the many are more incorruptible than the few.  The 
individual is liable to be overcome by anger or by some other 
passion, and then his judgement is necessarily perverted; but it 
is hardly to be supposed that a great number of persons would all 
get into a passion and go wrong at the same moment.

It must not be assumed, as some are fond of saying, that democracy 
is simply that form of government in which the greater number are 
sovereign, for in oligarchies, and indeed in every government, the 
majority rules; nor again is oligarchy that form of government in 
which a few are sovereign . . .We should rather say that democracy 
is the form of government in which the free are rulers, and 
oligarchy in which the rich; it is only an accident that the free 
are the many and the rich are the few.  Otherwise a government in 
which the offices were given according to stature, or according to 
beauty, would be an oligarchy; for the number of tall or good-looking 
men is small.  And yet oligarchy and democracy are not sufficiently 
distinguished merely by these two characteristics of wealth and 
freedom.  Both of them contain many other elements, and therefore 
we must carry our analysis further, and say that the government is 
not a democracy in which the freemen, being few in number, rule over 
the many who are not free. Neither is it a democracy when the rich 
have the government because they exceed in number.  But the form of 
government is a democracy when the free, who are also poor and the 
majority, govern, and an oligarchy when the rich and noble govern, 
they being at the same time few in number.

Of forms of democracy first comes that which is said to be based 
strictly on equality.  In such a democracy the law says that it is 
just for the poor to have no more advantage than the rich; and that 
neither should be masters, but both equal.  For if liberty and 
equality are chiefly to be found in democracy, they will be best 
attained when all persons alike share in the government to the utmost.  
And since the people are the majority, and the opinion of the 
majority is decisive, such a government must necessarily be a 
democracy.  Here then is one sort of democracy.  There is another, 
in which the magistrates are elected according to a certain property 
qualification, but a low one; he who has the required amount of 
property has a share in the government, but he who loses his property 
loses his rights.  Another kind is that in which all the citizens 
who are under no disqualification share in the government, but still 
the law is supreme.  In another, everybody, if he be only a citizen, 
is admitted to the government, but the law is supreme as before.  A 
fifth form of democracy, in other respects the same, is that in 
which, not the law, but the multitude, have the supreme power, 
and supercede the law by their decrees.  This is a state of 
affairs brought about by the demagogues.

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