Aristotle On The Vulnerabilities Of Democracies That Allow Their Constitutions To Be Changed

The renowned ancient philosopher, Aristotle (c. 384-322 BCE), warned that democracies were more vulnerable to becoming oligarchical in cases where the state allowed dramatic changes to its laws or constitution. On this, Aristotle wrote, “there are in other places constitutions which according to law incline towards democracy, but by reason of their customs and training operate more like oligarchies. This is especially apt to happen after a change of constitution” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker number 1292b). This danger, Aristotle would go on to suggest, could be all the more prevalent when the leaders pushing for constitutional change were approaching the issue from a tribalist, us-versus-them, political stance. Such political leaders can be the proverbial wolves in sheep clothing who can convince the people of a democracy to give up more power than the people might actually realize, leading to a transition from a democratic society to one that verges more on oligarchic or dictatorial rule. On this perilous scenario, Aristotle wrote, “The citizens do not at once discard their old ways, but are at first content to gain only moderate advantages from their victory over the opposing side, whichever that may be. The result is that the existing laws continue to be valid, but power is in the hands of those who have brought about the change in the constitution” (Aristotle, The Politics, Bekker number 1292b). Therefore, it would be best for the populations of democratic states to be careful whenever changes or augmentations to a constitution or rule of law are being proposed, especially if the proposals are coming from politicians that dabble in tribalism and demagoguery.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Reproduction of Dialectica, attributed to Cornelis Schut I and to the late 19th century, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Rijksmuseum).

Sources:

  • The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.

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