Democracy in the Politics of Aristotle

Table of contents

The goal of this Web site

Ancient Greek democracy has regularly attracted the attention of modern political scientists as part of the discussion of the theory and practice of democratic systems of government. By far the most important ancient text for this discussion is the Politics of Aristotle. Studying what Aristotle has to say about democracy in the Politics is challenging for several reasons. First of all, his remarks on the subject are spread widely throughout this extended work. The challenge is further increased by the discursive character of Aristotle's arguments in the Politics, which for one thing mix discussions of theoretical principles for systems of government with observations about actual Greek states of Aristotle's time (and before it). Finally, there is the strong possibility that the traditionally accepted order of the eight "Books" or chapters of the Politics is not the order in which Aristotle meant his arguments to be presented.

The goal of this site is to provide one possible aid for those wishing to meet this challenge. It therefore offers a series of topical headings under which selected passages relevant to the study of democracy in the Politics are rearranged. That is, under each topic the passages are listed not in the order in which they occur in the Politics, but are instead arranged in an order that attempts to suggest connections in thought between Aristotle's various remarks on democracy. The passages are paraphrased rather than translated word for word, although the paraphrases of the shorter excerpts attempt to stay as close to the Greek wording as is practical. Since the paraphrased passages are meant to serve as jumping-off points for consideration of the full text of the Politics, each passage has an active link to the full text of the Politics in Greek and in an accompanying English translation maintained on the World Wide Web by the Perseus Project at Tufts University. A glossary of Greek terms linked to on-line philological reference tools and a very selective bibliography of recommended print readings are also included.

Since the approach adopted for this site rearranges the order of material on democracy from the Politics, it necessarily removes each passage from its context in order to suggest connections in thought that might not be easy to grasp when the text is read serially from beginning to end. This displacement of the passages suggests an interpretation of the connections in Aristotle's thought on democracy in the Politics. The potential danger of this method, of course, is that reading excerpted and paraphrased passages without considering their full context can be seriously misleading. It must be strongly emphasized, therefore, that reading the Politics thoroughly from beginning to end (and more than once!) is the only way to try to understand fully its complex and interwoven arguments. With this caution firmly in mind, users can consider the arrangement of excerpted passages as a guide to further study of Aristotle's reflections on ancient Greek democracy.

In the environment provided by the World Wide Web, all readers can immediately confront our implied interpretation with the underlying evidence and offer suggestions for improvement by electronic response to the author and contributors. In this way the collaborative work that produced this site can continue as a scholarly conversation on a wide scale.

Author: Thomas R. Martin, Holy Cross Classics Dept.
Contributors: Neel Smith, Holy Cross Classics Dept.; Jennifer F.Stuart, Holy Cross '95