Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE), one of the most influential philosophers of ancient Greece, discussed different types of democracies in a section of his text, The Politics. He noted that some democratic constitutions attempted to embrace the ideal of equality, whereas other constitutions limited equality in government by imposing certain status requirements or property qualifications. Whatever the configuration of the democratic constitution, Aristotle would likely have given the democracy a passing grade as long as a free majority of the populace, with sovereign control over the state, established a government ruled by a constitution of democratic laws. Aristotle went on to discuss a grave danger that had the potential to unravel any kind of democratic constitution. This peril to democracies, warned Aristotle, was the demagogue—a type of political leader who relies on passion, prejudice and populism, instead of reasoned argument. Aristotle explained the danger of powerful demagogues in this way:
“[Demagogues] bring every question before the people, and make its decrees sovereign instead of the laws. This greatly enhances their personal power because, while the people is sovereign over all, they [the demagogue] rule over the people’s opinion, since the multitude follows their lead… So if you were to say that such a democracy is not a constitution at all, your strictures would seem to be perfectly right” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker number 1292a).
As told by Aristotle, when a demagogue—wielding rhetorical tricks and inflammatory speech—begins to convince a populace in a democratic state to override its own laws and constitutional institutions in favor of unreasoned whims and trends, then that state is in danger of losing its democracy. Instead of sovereignty residing with the general will of the majority, enshrined in constitutional law, now the new sovereign would be the demagogue, ruling through the manipulation of public opinion to the detriment of law and the constitution. The demagogue threat, however, can be combated. Concepts similar to the idealistic statement of “No one is above the law” are vital to maintaining the strength of a constitution and limiting the power of demagogues. As told by Aristotle, “Where laws do not rule, there is no constitution” and “When states are democratically governed according to the law, there are no demagogues, and the best citizens are securely in the saddle; but where the laws are not sovereign, there you find demagogues” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker number 1292a). It is ancient food for thought that all modern democracies should heed.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Aristotle the first scientist, illustration commissioned by A. and M. Wix, [Public Domain or no known restrictions] via Creative Commons and the New York Public Library collection).
- The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.