Policy Point--Counterpoint: Is Democracy the Best Form of Governance? Aristotelian vs. Platonic Thought.

Author:Skidmore-Hess, Daniel

George H. Sabine opened the Preface to his classic textbook A History of Political Theory with the statement that "theories of politics are themselves a part of politics." (1) A pragmatist by intellectual commitment, Sabine's point was that the study of the classics of political thought is an engagement with real, relevant, and contemporary implications. Indeed, it is precisely the practical import of a great text that renders it a classic and that lends it that nexus that draws the modern student into the text and where they find insights that become part of their politics. Of course, it was always this way, in our Classics of Political Thought course we approach the study of Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics much as Sabine would have done, contextually, examining the conflicts and tensions not only within the texts but in the relationship between the political thinkers and the democratic polis of ancient Athens. From the beginning then, we can see that the question and contestation of democracy helped to form these texts, provided the grains of sand if you will around which the pearls of wisdom formed and crystallized. Yet by reading these texts, we can still profitably reflect about the problems and prospects of democracy. Is it the best form of governance? Here, we present a point and counter-point on this question by my students Jasmine Ellison and Chase Sherrod, respectively, taking up the insights of Aristotle then Plato. Jasmine and Chase reconsider the problems of democracy in conceptual terms that the classics teach us, including conflict between social classes, conflict that then as now threatens the very integrity of the polis itself, for one the thing the classics quickly teach us is that political engagement while virtuous is not for the faint of heart. By recapitulating classic themes, these students demonstrate to us how timely and alive these texts remain, as John Locke once said of reason, for those "who will but consult" them. (2)

Point: The Aristotelian Perspective

From an Aristotelian perspective, a democracy is the best form of government. A Platonist would cite Plato's Republic to dispute this, noting a democracy derives from the anarchical nature of an individual, resulting in tyranny. However, this Platonic perspective on democracy does not take into account that Aristotle described four types of democracies, and the type of democracy a Platonist is most likely to imagine is not the one Aristotle envisioned as the finest form. Instead, the best form of government is a democracy in which there is a multitude of free, poor working men, such as farmers, that outnumber the rich population. This form of democracy succeeds because both the rich and the poor participate in the election process. Both groups conduct audits of those in office, and serve in the courts to ensure that those elected to office are capable people. This is the ideal form of government because in this usage, democracy accounts for the preeminent poor population as well at the wealthy.

However, to understand what this democracy is, one must understand what a city-state is, what a citizen is, and the relationship that the citizens share with one another. Most importantly, one must understand what a democracy is from the Aristotelian perspective. Per Aristotle's Politics, human beings make up the city-state by nature. (3) A city-state is a partnership amongst the free and those who are free rule the city-state. (4) A democracy is a rule in which the multitude have authority. (5) Freedom is the foundation of democracy. To be free means that one can live as he pleases, with the understanding that one can be ruled but can also be the ruler since equality depends on number, not merit, as it pertains to a democracy. (6) As Aristotle wrote, a citizen is the person who has a share in ruling and being ruled and can serve as a juror and hold public office. The overall excellence of all citizens requires the ability and knowledge to both rule free men and being ruled. This results in justice to the overall political good. (7)...

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