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In addressing the question of the construction of democracies and oligarchies, Aristotle reminds us that even someone wholly committed to the principles of democracy would not want to construct a city based entirely on the principles of democracy. This would in effect be an extreme form of democracy, or demagoguery, which would undermine the very principles it was created to serve. Rather, a government must temper these principles and discover how best to apply them, given the particular make-up of the people over whom it rules.
Aristotle states that the underlying principle of all democracy is liberty, but the concept of liberty can be interpreted in two different ways. Under one interpretation, liberty means an even interchange between ruling and being ruled by all freeborn citizens. This implies the sovereignty of the majority and the equality of all before the law. Under the other interpretation, liberty means the freedom to do whatever one wants. In this system, ideally, one would not be ruled at all; if government became necessary, however, an even interchange between ruling and being ruled would arise. These conceptions of liberty (and by extension democracy) share the fundamental principle that all people are equal, regardless of wealth or merit.
Raising the question of how equality should be secured, Aristotle recommends a compromise between democracy and oligarchy, suggesting that sovereignty should be granted to whichever side has the greatest absolute amount of wealth. This is oligarchic in giving importance to wealth, but democratic in allowing the numbers of the poor to count.
Aristotle asserts that a population of farmers makes for the best kind of democracy: they must work hard and are well spread apart so they can't spend too much time in government. So, as long as they can select officers and are not robbed of their wealth, they are happier working their farms than they would be in public office. The wealthy hold all significant offices, but they are entirely accountable to the farmers.
The worst kind of population for a democracy is made up of mechanics, shopkeepers, and laborers. Because they are all crowded around the city center, they take a very active part in politics and tend to encourage mob rule and demagoguery.
Aristotle issues a reminder that the best democratic policy is not the most extreme but rather the one that will ensure the survival of the democracy. As a result, the populace should not be able to profit from confiscating the wealth of the rich, and payments to the poor should be in the form of block grants that allow them to buy land rather than simple handouts.
Early in book one, Aristotle states, “for mankind always act in order to obtain that which they think good.” The wording of “they think” in his statement implies that humankind seeks “good” based on their subjective definition of the term. If humankind seeks what they think is good, it naturally falls that individuals will seek what they believe to be good for themselves, which then seems to lead naturally to the accumulation of coin because of its ability to bring material comforts.
I want to believe that money does not b... Read more→
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