Why Aristotle Hated Athenian Democracy

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is one of our most valuable sources on Athenian politics. He was, however, not entirely accepting of the city’s democratic practices.

Aug 16, 2022By Trevor Lee, BA History & Classics
aristotle philosopher with akropolis athens
The Akropolis of Athens, by Leo von Klenze, 1846; Drawing of Aristotle, after Raphael, 19th century, via the British Museum


Democracy is regarded as one of the lasting legacies of ancient Athens. From Roman senators to American senators, recognition and praise for the Athenian state has existed since its founding. Yet, why did Aristotle, who penned the two most substantial works on Athenian democracy, the Politics and the Athenian Constitution, infamously criticize it?


Aristotle Believed  Democracy Could Be Exploited 

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Return of Peisistratus to Athens with the false Minerva by M.A. Barth, 1838, Wikimedia


The philosopher’s chief issue with Athenian democracy was its susceptibility to popular leaders who pandered only to the common poor. Some figures ruled well, namely Solon, Cleisthenes, and Pericles. However, many others were incompetent, immoral, and gained power by tricking the Athenian people, the demos.


The earliest to do so was Athens’ first tyrant, Peisistratos. According to Aristotle, Peisistratos was widely recognized as an extreme democrat by the demos. Though he supposedly supported democracy, Peisistratos was able to seize supreme power in Athens multiple times by deceiving the people. In his first tenure, Peisistratos faked an assassination attempt on himself and successfully petitioned the state to grant him a bodyguard, which he used to establish his tyranny around 561 BCE.


After being driven out by his political opponents five years later, Peisistratos managed to gain a second tyranny by returning to Athens on a chariot with an especially tall woman dressed as Athena. Despite being expelled from Athens a second time, Peisistratos then returned in 546 BCE and established a third tyranny by disarming the Athenian demos with the help of mercenaries. Of course, Aristotle was generally favorable toward the tyrant because he had left most of the Athenian government unchanged. Nevertheless, Peisistratos and his three periods of rule revealed just how gullible the demos was to the philosopher.


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Marble portrait bust of Pericles, 2nd century CE, via the British Museum

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Peisistratos’s rise to power was not an isolated case either. Aristotle believed that after Pericles’ death 429 BCE, the demos continually appointed charismatic demagogues who damaged  Athenian democracy. This was the case with Cleon, the political leader who immediately succeeded Pericles. Aristotle recognized him as “the cause of the corruption of democracy,” primarily for his constant practice of “unseemly shouting and coarse abuse” (Athenian Constitution 28.3).


Similarly, many demagogues were able to simply purchase popular support through cash handouts to the masses. To this, Aristotle provided the examples of Cleophon and Callicrates. Cleophon became the leader of the demos in the last decade of the fifth century by instituting a payment of two obols a day to various Athenian citizens, thereby purchasing popular support. Callicrates then ousted him by campaigning to make it three obols. Aristotle despised this practice of buying over the demos and advised any fledgling state that “Where there are revenues the demagogues should not be allowed after their manner to distribute the surplus; the poor are always receiving and always wanting more and more, for such help is like water poured into a leaky cask” (Politics 6.1320a).


Likewise, Aristotle concluded that after Cleophon, Athens was successively led by demagogues who “chose to talk the biggest and pander the most to the tastes of the majority, with their eyes fixed only on the interests of the moment” (Athenian Constitution 28.4).


Athenian Democracy Was Best Led by Oligarchs

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Croesus showing his treasures to Solon, by Gaspar van den Hoecke, 1630s, via Radio France


According to Aristotle, Athens fared better under comparatively more oligarchic leadership. That is, he believed that the Athenian state was best maintained under the older, less radically democratic constitutions of Solon and Cleisthenes, the policies of whom he referred to as Athens’ “ancestral laws”.


Firstly, the philosopher recognized Solon to have established a balanced compromise between democracy, aristocracy, and oligarchy in the late seventh and early sixth centuries. Of the democratic aspects of Solon’s reforms, Aristotle listed the abolition of debt slavery, the right for any citizen to take judicial action against any wrongdoing, and the establishment of jury courts, which he believed to be the source of the demos’ power. As counterweights, oligarchic measures were also taken. Solon purposely restricted political offices according to economic wealth, and the lowest class, the thetes, were completely excluded from holding them.


Similarly, Solon entrusted the safeguarding of his laws to the oligarchic Council of the Areopagus. This was an assembly of formerly elected archons, the highest officials in Athens, which served as both the highest judicial court in Athens and at times its leading political council. Aristotle himself was favorable toward the Areopagus. He believed that it functioned well because of its privileged, aristocratic background, reasoning that because archons were often elected according to noble birth and economic standing, they were the only group which deserved lifelong positions in the Areopagus (which they did have).


phryne before the areopagus aristotle
Phryne before the Areopagus, by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1861, via the Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg


Solon thus created a proto-democracy that Aristotle thought enfranchised the rich and poor in a balanced manner. Though, he believed that the Athenian state became much more democratic after the reforms of Cleisthenes, who led Athens from 510 to 508 BCE immediately after the tyranny of Peisistratos and his sons. Cleisthenes was responsible for establishing the 10 tribes, or demes, into which the people of Athens were divided regardless of class or nobility. He also further empowered the people by instituting the practice of ostracism. Even though he recognized Cleisthenes to have only strengthened the democracy, Aristotle was mostly positive regarding his reforms.


cleisthenes modern image
Modern bust of Cleisthenes, at the Ohio Statehouse, 2004, Kosmos Society Harvard University


After Cleisthenes, the philosopher described a seventeen-year period of rule by the oligarchic Areopagus after the Battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. It should be noted though, that the historicity of this era is disputed, and the idea of Areopagite dominance at this time may have been fabricated by Aristotle. In any case, during this time the Athenian state had supposedly accumulated massive amounts of wealth and had begun its expansion overseas. However, Aristotle immediately contrasted this era with the succeeding one. Areopagite power would come to an end thanks to the democratic reformer, Ephialtes, whom the philosopher considered to have ushered in a disastrous age of demagoguery:


“The sixth [age] was that which followed on the Persian wars, when the Council of Areopagus had the direction of the state. The seventh, succeeding this, was the constitution which Aristides sketched out, and which Ephialtes brought to completion by overthrowing the Areopagite Council; under this the nation, misled by the demagogues, made the most serious mistakes in the interest of its maritime empire.”
(Athenian Constitution 41.2)


Consequently, Aristotle did not recognize the most democratic politicians as Athenian democracy’s best leaders, but rather the relatively oligarchic moderates.


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Aristotle with a Bust of Homer, by Rembrandt, 1653, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City


Regardless, he believed that an ideal state’s leaders should originate from the aristocracy (a word that literally means “rule by the best”). These were not necessarily members of the nobility, but rather the “best” citizens of a state, who often tended to be wealthy and of noble birth. This was because these supposed aristocrats had merit, virtue, and leisure. Whereas oligarchs came from a small group distinguished by wealth, aristocrats exemplified good birth and virtue.


Merit and virtue are certainly desirable traits to have, but why leisure? Aristotle claimed that having leisure (and consequently, wealth) meant that you did not have to worry about your daily needs or economic standing while in office. Likewise, his concept of leisure was not simply pure hedonism, but involved the cultivation of art and education. Thus, a politician who had access to leisure only became a better leader because of it.


In any case, Aristotle did not believe that the common masses should lead by themselves. They were poor, uneducated, and more susceptible to crime while in office. In contrast, he considered the virtuous, who were usually educated and well-off, to be the ideal leading caste, and his presentation of Athenian history certainly shows it.


Mixing Oligarchy and Democracy

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Drawing of Aristotle, after Raphael, 19th century, via the British Museum


Despite its perceived faults, Aristotle was not entirely opposed to the concept of democracy. His primary critique of Athenian politics was that it was often too democratic. The demos were routinely tricked by populists and made decisions that served themselves rather than the state. Consequently, Athens lacked a substantial oligarchic or aristocratic counterweight to balance out its politics. Additionally, Aristotle argued that demagogues only arose when the laws were ignored, and the people ruled supreme.


This does not mean that he unequivocally favored oligarchies. In fact, he believed that whenever either the masses or the oligarchs gained power, both sides established governments which served their own interests over those of the state.


Instead, Aristotle favored governments which held a mix between oligarchic and democratic policies. He called this ideal balance politeia, usually translated as “polity” or “constitution.” This imagined government would be predictably characterized by its moderation. For example, Aristotle argued that the ideal citizen for a mixed government did not come from the rich or poor, but the middle class. That is, he thought that the very rich and the very poor were susceptible to extremism and political dissent, in contrast to the moderate middle class. Consequently, Aristotle’s politeia was the best because it was stable and free of civil strife.


Aristotle’s Politeia in Practice: Carthage and Sparta

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Dido building Carthage, by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1815, via the National Gallery, London


Unfortunately, Aristotle did admit that it was difficult to formulate a specific, singular form of mixed government that every state should adopt. However, he did describe real-world constitutions which he believed most resembled his politeia. Two of these were Carthage and Sparta.


Beginning with Carthage, Aristotle found the Phoenician city to have been a uniquely well-ordered mixed government. In it, the people elected the leading kings and generals. While merit was considered, officials were also elected for their wealth. This was because the Carthaginians believed that without wealth, one could not have the quality of leisure. Thus, Aristotle concluded, Carthage tended most toward oligarchy by placing such an emphasis on wealth. However, they also kept aristocratic values by considering merit, and democratic values by electing their officials from the entire citizenry.


The way the city’s kings and elders led also introduced a similar practice. If these elected oligarchic officials could agree on one course of action, it was accepted without further deliberation. If not, the issue would be given over to the people to decide. Aristotle thus understood Carthage to be a mixed government. And the results were clear, as he claimed that Carthage had never experienced significant civil instability or tyranny.


“Many of the Carthaginian institutions are excellent. The superiority of their constitution is proved by the fact that the common people remain loyal to the constitution the Carthaginians have never had any rebellion worth speaking of and have never been under the rule of a tyrant.”
(Politics 2.1272b)


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A Spartan Woman Giving a Shield to Her Son, by Jean Jacques François Lebarbier, 1805, via the Portland Art Museum


Sparta was also listed as an admirable example of a mixed constitution, though in different ways from Carthage. Aristotle recognized it to be a mix primarily between oligarchy and democracy. It was democratic primarily for its institutional equality. The rich and poor were educated together and shared in the communal mess without distinction. Likewise, the entire citizenry was responsible for electing among themselves members of the Gerousia, the council of elders, and the ephors, the highest magistrates of the city.


In contrast, he considered Sparta to be oligarchic because the power of banishment and execution resided with a small group of officials, and curiously, because officials were elected and not sorted randomly by lot. The Athenians, and Aristotle, believed sortition, election by lot, to be the democratic alternative to election. Most magistrates in Athens were appointed this way because it supposedly eliminated the ability to enter office through bribery or corruption and meant that anyone could serve in the government.


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Detail of the Papyrus 131, a surviving papyrus of Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution, circ. 100 CE, via the British Library


Aristotle sought to accomplish internal stability and unity in discussing the ideal politeia. That is, he believed in a moderate balance between oligarchy, aristocracy, and democracy to prevent factionalism within a state. It is then no wonder that Aristotle was so horrified at the rampant populism which plagued Athenian democracy.


Of course, this was the perspective of an elite philosopher who was clearly biased toward the upper class. Are we supposed to believe him when he claims that demagogues corrupted Athens? Prospective readers should no doubt be skeptical when examining Aristotle’s political works. Regardless, they do provide a useful insight into the flaws of democracy and continue to remain relevant to the modern world.

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By Trevor LeeBA History & ClassicsTrevor is a PhD student in Classics specializing in Byzantine Studies, with an undergraduate degree (BA) in Classics and History from the University of Rochester. While focusing on everything Byzantine, his interests also include the world of Athenian politics and its Roman reception. Outside of academics, he spends most of his time gaming and playing chess.